An open letter to Mark Dodson on the subject of state school rugby

Former Development Officer Gavin Blackburn recently wrote to Scottish Rugby's Chief Executive to express concern about how state school rugby is being handled

Image courtesy: Kevin Quinn of Marr Rugby
Image courtesy: Kevin Quinn of Marr Rugby

Dear Mark,

Thank you for taking the time to read this email which is to enquire about the strategic plan with regards to investment by Scottish Rugby into our state schools in this country.

When you look at our current national team you will see the likes of Rory Sutherland, Stuart Hogg, Finn Russell, Johnny Gray and Rob Harley, who have all came through the state school system.

I was a development officer for five years in North Ayrshire under Glen Tippett so I am aware as to how the partnership agreements are worded and what they consist of.

The number of posts that were in existence has sadly diminished and I would like to know why? Is this on instruction by Scottish Rugby? Are the Local Authorities not prepared to part fund the posts? If so I would find this hugely surprising as I always found council officials massively supportive of our game after seeing the impact it can have on local clubs and communities.

When I was in post, I worked in the new (at the time) schools structure with private schools in their own conference and state schools in a separate tiered competition.

]In my opinion the private schools will always produce quality players because:

  1. They will offer scholarships to the best players.
  2. Parents who are in a position to will pay for their kids to be in that environment.

State schools is where serious investment should be directed, increasing the numbers of pupils being given the opportunity to play our game and then make their way to their local club and grow its numbers also. The social impact is huge in these areas with kids being shown the disciplines and values of our game.

Having seen the direct impact our game has had on many ‘unruly’ kids is phenomenal: the changes of behaviour, the feeling of being wanted by a team and group of players is something that only some of these kids will ever experience.

For me, Scottish Rugby has only ever played at it and never really thrown the kitchen sink at it, look at other nations such as Ireland where their school game is so strong now. I’m not saying we should follow suit directly but we must be prepared to build our game from the schools up.

If we build the game from the state schools up we get more players to clubs, clubs thriving with membership, a social impact that will last a lifetime, and more players wanting to play our game week-on-week. If we have more players more, we have more quality to choose from.

Along with numerous others deeply involved in the game over many years, I would genuinely like to know what Scottish Rugby is currently doing or intends to do to improve and enhance its input to Schools rugby.

Mr Dodson, having played and coached the game in this country and elsewhere for over 30 years I have a deep understanding of the realities in all of this – so a direct response that details the plan and related criteria going forward would be greatly welcomed.

Thank you.

Gavin Blackburn

  • Note: Gavin received replies to this letter from both Mark Dodson and incoming Director of Rugby Development Gav Scott, recognising the concerns raised and re-assuring him that this is an issue Scottish Rugby is keen to tackle.
  • Scottish Rugby’s recent announcement on a funding package for the grassroots game stated that there will be a “focus on schools and youth rugby with an emphasis on state schools”.
  • Gavin is looking forward to seeing how these encouraging noises translate into meaningful investment and effective initiatives.

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About Gavin Blackburn 2 Articles
Originally from Giffnock, Gavin is a former age-grade district and international prop. He was a member of Saracens’ academy programme in the late 1990s, then played club rugby for London Scottish, Glasgow Hawks, Glasgow Southern and Stirling County before an Achilles injury ended his career. He was part of the Glasgow Warriors squad which visited Canada ahead of the 1999-2000 season, and has since coached at Dunfermline, Kilmarnock, Biggar, Garnock, West of Scotland and Stirling County, and was a development officer for five years between 2012 and 2017 in the Garnock Valley.

25 Comments

  1. Very good letter to open the debate. I too was involved in rugby through my school, former pupils team and then overseas in South Africa for many years. I can’t comment too much about the systems in place in Scotland but in SA the clubs pay together as a club – so the games will play games from late morning under 19, then under 20, 3rd XV, 4th XV, 2nd XV and finally the first team. Usually played on 2 fields with slightly staggered KO times but building up to the main event. It creates atmosphere, “crowds” and interest in the games.
    Mini rugby and school rugby is also very big there and the sport becomes culture. The provincial players also turn out for their club sides occasionally and even the odd Springbok.
    In Scotland – maybe has changed now – but in my day the first team may have played at home but the 2nd’s were in Glasgow, thirds in Fife, or whatever and that created splits and loss of interest, especially if your mate wan’t in the same team as you.

  2. I do not know what the answer is but there are many facets to this problem..
    1. A lot of kids are lost at the mini rugby stage when they come up against bigger more physically developed youngsters.
    2. Of those that continue through minis a large number drift away in their mid teens when they find other “pastimes”
    3.The next watershed is the transition from teen to adult which is just too physical for some. In the old days a teenager could be looked after by the old heads in the 4ths but who runs 4xvs nowadays?
    4. Others are lost when they move for work or education.

    It would be interesting to know what % of minis end up playing adult rugby?

    I suspect retention would be easier than expansion

  3. A good letter from Gavin and we should hope for a positive and detailed response and plan from the SRU – in due course, because this is a thorny one.

    His issue is specifically with rugby in state secondary schools and why development thereof has more or less stalled. The emphasis is right, the more schools there are fielding teams and playing competitive rugby, the greater the mass of future club players, home-grown nternationalists, club volunteers and spectators. There are more than 300 state secondary schools in the country but only 25 of them play regular rugby and field one team per school year.

    This is incredibly low next to Tier 1 competitors like Ireland, New Zealand etc. and the main reason we have such a small rugby base. We should really be driving to get maybe 60 schools playing regularly. One in 5 is not actually an unachievable or over-ambitious target.

    The SRU was well on the way with its Schools of Rugby programme, they had close on 30 IIRC schools involved and another 20÷ keen to join in at a regional level. Then it all ground to a halt.

    One reason may (or may not) be cutbacks by local authorities in funding for the schools development officers like Gavin. If so, the SRU should say so, not sweep it under the carpet. It may (or may not) have been superseded by the Cashback for Communities programme, where the SG invests ill-gotten gains seized from criminals, which the SRU uses to fund rugby in 15 schools in ‘areas of multi deprivation, which looks a great initiative that is doing well.

    But the main elephant in the room – and I apologise to clubs for saying so – is this constant tug-of-war between youth rugby and schools rugby for the same players. When the 20+ additional schools signed up to playing in local leagues (the Tier 4 leagues), the clubs went ballistic, accusing the SRU of taking away ‘their’ youth players. The result was that 20+ keen schools never got started.

    What has happened instead is that the larger town clubs have cherry-picked the best players from local schools in order to put out a youth team – but competive schools rugby in these towns has ceased.
    So instead of a couple of schools playing in Inverness or Perth or Stirling or wherever we have the club youth putting out half or a third of the numbers.

    So the answer to Gavin’s question is that the SRU can’t actually do much to rejuvenate schools rugby, because the clubs – or maybe ‘some’ clubs – won’t let them.

    The sensible way through is that clubs do the arduous work of mini rugby up to end of primary school; secondaries that wish to play schools rugby are encouraged to do so and clubs recruit their youth teams from other schools in their catchment area; and school teams play under a joint school/club label (already happens in the Schools Conference with Lomond School/Helensburgh, Balfron/Strathendrick etc).

    I don’t see how schools rugby can progress any further until this schools/youth impasse is sensibly resolved. Answers on a plain postcard to M Dodson, SRU, EH12 etc.

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    • Not sure where you get the figure of only 25 schools playing regular rugby? I’m in the Highlands and coach a very small School and we have played in a conference with 6 other Highland schools last season alone. Can’t believe that 7 of the 25 you mention are up here with the other 18 across the country.
      There are issues definitely but catastrophising the numbers like that is maybe not helpful: there’s an army of people giving up their own free time to make school rugby run and making them seem not valid probably not good for morale.

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      • Glen,
        The 25 number is the schools that can put out up to 5 teams regularly, i.e. one per school year (S1, S2, S3, U16 and U18). That was the original aim for the Schools of Rugby, to develop 40+ state secondaries that majored on rugby, played regularly in competitive school leagues and thereby produced a steady stream of young players coming into the game.

        Schools in the upper tiers would put out 5 teams, those in Tier 4 would have fielded 2 or 3 teams.

        As I understand it, there are 21 state secondaries doing so in the Schools Conferences and another 4 in the Border Town Conference, hence my 25 figure. (In the latter, the schools field the S1 and S2 teams and the clubs field the rest, though things may have moved on from that arrangement).

        There were several local/regional leagues where schools played a few games but these seem to have petered out in some lowland places. Great to hear that there are 6 schools playing where you are, out of interest, which ones?

    • Interesting thesis there Cripes.

      It’s not a tug of war between schools and clubs. Scottish Rugby – as far as I know the only Union to do this – decreed that kids can only play one game a weekend.

      There was no need to do that. We wouldn’t want them playing two games a day like I did back in the 80s but playing two games a weekend is possible.

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      • You put your finger on the key point Dom.

        Getting regular rugby going in a school and building up a rugby ethos takes time and voluminous effort. What is the point of cutting across that by insisting that the players also turn out for a club the same weekend?

        The research or at least anecdotal evidence at the time that underlaid the one-game rule, I was told, was that playing two games per weekend was not that popular with a lot of players and got quite a lot of flak from parents. There were also school concerns from both the playing and academic sides and some concerns from the SRU medics. I am sure these concerns existed but have no idea how widespread they were.

        If we just let the schools get on with it and provide all possible support for their efforts from the local club, LA and SRU, the clubs will be the ultimate beneficiaries. What is the point clubs competing for the same players?

        You can see the result across the main towns. School rugby has gone backwards in so many cases, with schools unable to raise a team, because their players have been hoovered up by the local club to form a youth team.

        It would make sense to let the 40 or so keen schools get on with their own thing and the clubs work with and recruit from the other 240÷ schools, now that would increase player numbers across the board.

        When all is said and done,

  4. SRU set up the schools conferences, whilst also having a policy that made kids choose between playing for their school or their local club. Instead of encouraging kids to join Clubs, they discouraged it – similar sort of time that “fewer, but stronger” became the strategy for Club rugby development.

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  5. I’ve been in England for over 20 years now so dont know what the schools rugby is like now, but in my day you got a few weeks in PE in 1st and 2nd year and that was it. Me and all my friends went to the local clubs junior training on a Saturday morning and that did more to get us into rugby than anything else.

    Where i am in England a lot of the local clubs have huge youth sections. The majority starting at 6 or 7 all the way up to Colts (u19). On a Sunday morning at the mini’s and midi’s there are hundreds of kids there with their parents but obviously this takes a huge number of volunteers to help with coaching – at least 3 per year group, with the majority being ex players who’s kids have started playing. Yes there are a number of state schools that have good rugby teams, but again for the vast majority of kids they will get a few weeks in PE and that is it for Rugby.

    For me if the help was there for clubs to set up and run junior sections that would be a bigger help that throwing money at state schools, although helping to have a tie in between local clubs and schools would be a help. Help from the SRU for equipment for kids, (ie smaller balls, tag rugby kit for little ones etc) help with all the form filling and H&S / safegaurding etc. In terms of a tie in between clubs and schools if time allowed PE teachers taking the kids of a weekend to the clubs junior training for a few weeks until the settle in, or Club coaches going into schools to help in PE lessons to get to know the kids could help boost numbers at clubs.

    Clubs need to be involved as if is schools only kids can get lost once they leave, whereas once they are in a club they can be part of it for life.

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    • The primary problem is however getting them to the Clubs, I suggest they are more likely to ‘catch the bug’ as it were if they have an initial environment away from home, especially if they [and probably are] from a non Rugby Family, after all if they did have that background the chances are they would be part of the Rugby Club anyway. A two pronged approach is best and the SRU need to work with Schools and local authorities in a ‘meaningful’ way from all sides to make it work.

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    • Totally agree Stuart. There are just too many factors mitigating against state school rugby. For it to work in what is already an over-crowed curriculum, you would have to expand the school day to allow a space for physical activity, of which rugby would be a part. Would a 9-5 day with ‘sport’ being offered in the middle be a runner? Difficult to get such a change accepted. Also, there would have to be, and in my opinion should be, a shift of emphasis in PE by ditching the ‘academic’ part of the syllabus and concentrating on the delivery of physical skills. Such a change might even free up time for PE teachers to consider returning to Saturday morning sport. But the main point to consider is that schools are not there to favour any one sport. If a school pupil wants to develop in athletics, they will join the local athletics club. Ditto swimming, basketball, tennis etc. Why should rugby (or football) be any different? Now admittedly there are some excellent examples of schools in Scotland that do deliver strong programmes in rugby; but these are the exception and, in general, depend on a strong link between school and club. Marr, mentioned in the comments, illustrates how this can work well. Such links can be establised throughout Scotland but the bulk of the work should be done by clubs. Therefore any funds from Murrayfield should be directed towards clubs, who themselves, if they so want, can use some of this money to strengthen links with local schools.

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      • Also, remember it’s not just PE teachers who run the school rugby teams. Some of us other subjects are adept at it too!

  6. Marr Rugby is a good example of getting involved with Marr College. We have a director of rugby who overseas School rugby and Marr Rugby. Our DO is also involved and parents who have qualified in coaching. For years state schools in the West of Scotland have lost out to Private schools in the West of Scotland. Lets hope SRU listens.

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  7. Been saying this for 25 years. I am blue in the face saying it. I’m so glad this open letter has been published.

    Well played.

    I cannot say with any confidence whether Dodson et Al will direct any attention to this. These lads don’t like fingers being pointed at their inadequacies or shortcomings and his form has shown that he ignores or pays lip service to a lot of issues.

    I hope that this comes to fruition. I really do.

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  8. Solutions (not many easy)

    1. Make rugby a mandatory part of all schools curriculum, this includes touch, sevens and full contact in different blocks.

    2. Ensure all physical activity staff are confident in teaching rugby (especially contact)

    3. Free tickets to every youth (at the end of their rugby block) to a pro-game. Each youth will receive 4-tickets and can pick any Edinburgh/Glasgow game/games throughout the season where there is availability.

    4. Work with TV people (BT/Prem sports etc) to give youth a chance to watch games for free for a month (or whatever time-period) before choosing to subscribe at a big discount.

    5. Remove the Private School/public school separation

    6. Offer local weekly 7’s/touch/15 a side tournaments where local teams can show up and play regardless of numbers. Helps gives games to teams who have called off etc and keeps players active.

    7. Separate the age groups more. High school year 1’s can struggle against more developed year 2 students, etc etc. Offer more sevens games if not enough players for 15 a side.

    In short: Keep students active and playing rugby. Free to low cost ways to attend games/watch on subscription channels.

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    • Sorry John. Forcing kids to play a sport doesn’t help.

      And other sports might want to do the same. So where does that get us?

      Other than that some interesting suggestions.

    • Ref your point 5, there is no longer much of a private school-state school separation, they all play together in the School Conferences, which comprise 23 private schools and 21 state secondaries.
      Frank Hadden engineered that, it was quite a feat to get the public schools playing state schools.

      The top private schools inevitably dominate the upper leagues, though both Marr College and Bell Baxter High are up there.

  9. At it’s heart, this is probably the single biggest thing we could do to improve our game in Scotland.
    More players, from a wider background, creating more fans, and so generating momentum for growth- as well as proving life blood for the game.
    State schools are unlikely to ever deliver rugby of a decent standard without properly thought out plans and support from somewhere (surely that somewhere should be the SRU?).

    Could perhaps state school teams compete on a wider platform- ie Aberdeen City v Dundee City, where the wider pool might mean we have enough players.

    Academies, development pathways, and elite level focus deliver a few good/great players, but certainly don’t bring anyone to the game that wouldn’t be involved to some degree in any case.

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  10. Spot on! This in my opinion is the most important issue to be addressed by the SRU if we want to catch up the significant distance we have fallen behind compared with other nations since the advent of professional rugby.

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  11. Now times are different and in my day at a state school we were forced, yes forced to play rugby every PE lesson from S4 -S6. In the earlier years, it was also a major part of PE with an introduction to other sports but never football.
    My experience of sport has varied over the years. I played rugby to be a part of a team and to make friends at High School. I was more interested in football but as one of the coaches was the father of one of the players I sat on the sidelines for a season before giving up.
    Today sport is more about money and committing to a sport at an early age. I have a number of friends who had children in the national schools squads and had great potential. However, they were all thrown on the scrap heap because they were not prepared to devote all their free time to a particular sport! That has to be wrong! They are only children and education is important. Only a small number will make it to the professional level. There needs to be more from the governing bodies in sport to attract those who enjoy the game and would be happy to turn out for a club team. Unless you are prepared to support those who wish to do that you will never build a large base from which to build upon. You will only have those who are at Private Schools and those who follow a parent’s involvement at a club.
    Extracurricular activities are limited and involve small numbers these days so the opportunity is there to be taken. Can Rugby produce a framework and more importantly avoid the elitism for all approach or your efforts will be wasted.
    Could one of the problems be that those making the decisions are all from a Private School background and are already of the elite culture?
    On another note where can youths view rugby? Soon it will only be available on Pay per view TV. You are never going to attract youngsters who can’t watch the sport.
    The SRU needs a culture change if they are to make a success of rugby in state schools.

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    • Bob – when you say “they were all thrown on the scrap heap because they were not prepared to devote all their free time to a particular sport” that’s a really important point. I wonder how many coaches and administrators still believe in the discredited 10,000 hours theory of achieving excellence. The smart money now is on cross-training and avoiding early over-specialisation. Again, just look at the Irish players and the skills they bring from playing the GAA sports.

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  12. Well said Gavin. Agree completely with your comments.

    To be fair to Scottish Rugby, much of the drop in funding has come from Councils withdrawing. I can only talk about Falkirk Council who gutted their development officer network. These are not statutory posts and are always subject to budget cuts. No matter the possible health benefits.

    We have been fortunate to get support via the School of Rugby at Larbert HS so chose to fund our DO. But it’s hard work raising the funds to keep it going.

    This also gets to the interconnected nature of our sport. You can’t have much of an elite if you don’t have a healthy base. Without kids taking up the game we will be a much reduced sport in 10 years time.

    I await the release of the strategy from Murrayfield with interest.

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  13. Couldn’t agree more. This isn’t a new problem, nor just a SRU one. Ever since PE became an examinable subject and teachers weren’t properly reimbursed for extra curricular activities, many sports have struggled. Rugby in particular has become an issue. My son attended a state school in Dunfermline and for 4 years, never touched a rugby ball there at all. The physical and mental health benefits and the teamwork and leadership benefits of this type of team sport should not be underestimated and cannot be overstated!

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    • I think that’s a good point Scott – I’m a teacher (not PE) and coach rugby, started a team from scratch in my school. However if I stopped for whatever reason then the team would instantly fold. Maybe some financial recognition (a basic stipend or something) from the SRU could create a conveyer belt of potential School coaches?

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