Helping change lives at The School of Hard Knocks

IT needed to be something special to justify venturing out into the arctic conditions of Edinburgh’s Southside on a bleak Thursday evening in early December – and the opportunity to watch recent male and female graduates from the Edinburgh branch of the School of Hard Knocks take on a couple of local rugby teams in an end of term celebratory match was certainly that.

Rugby prides itself on being built on the foundation stones as hard-work, fair-play, discipline and respect; and this was a golden example of what can be achieved when the sport is used to reach out and share these principles with some of the people in our society who need it most.

School of Hard Knocks [SoHK] uses sport – usually rugby – to tackle issues surrounding unemployment, crime and health. The concept was formulated by Ken Cowen in 2007, who persuaded Sky Sports to run several television series’ following former internationalists Scott Quinnell and Will Greenwood as they delivered rugby coaching to unemployed people in various parts of the country as a starting block to a wide-reaching programme aimed at helping participants take the steps necessary to return to the world of work.

SoHK became a charity in 2012 and first developed a presence in Scotland in 2015, before officially launching north of the border in March of this year. Since then, it has reached more than 100 unemployed adults across the central belt.

It offers a number of different programmes, each uniquely tailored to its participants but steadfastly focussed on a core of principal aims. There is a constant methodology of controlled confrontation, challenging activities and continual affirmation of self-worth and motivation. The ultimate aim is to equip participants emotionally, psychologically and practically for the challenges they face in trying to return to the workplace.

It has been remarkably successful in doing this. The first Edinburgh course graduated on 25th June 2017 and an impressive 85% of participants (20 people in total) found full-time work within six weeks. Four moved from temporary to permanent accommodation, four joined training courses, four now take part in volunteer work and 11 joined a local rugby club.

Last month’s matches, played at Inch Park in the Liberton area of Edinburgh, celebrated the end of the fourth SoHK course to be run in the capital, helping 25 people to get their life back on track. The female graduates took on Lismore Ladies in a touch rugby game, then the male graduates locked horns against the Caledonian Thebans in a controlled full-contact match. It was rugby in the raw – fast, furious and with plenty rough edges – but more than anything else the enthusiasm and sense of camaraderie exhibited by all participants was what defined the occasion. Watching the action was good for the soul – taking part was clearly exhilarating.

“I am a footballer and I thought that this wasn’t my sort of sport, but I kept going at it and kept going at it, and now I’ve quit playing football and signed up to play for the Thebans. It was a big step for me but it will be worth it,” says Andy, a fresh faced 20-something, as he catches his breath during a break from the men’s game.

“I didn’t have a good school life but I did okay at college and had worked as a chef since I was a teenager, but I had a few issues with mental health and had been out of work for a while when they asked me if I wanted to do School of Hard Knocks. I helped out in the kitchen while I was doing the course and that gave me the boost to start trying to get back into work. Now I’m working 40 to 50 hours a week in the kitchen of a nursing home.”

“I love the rugby but it is working with the guys which has really helped me. They are great with all the paperwork and things you need to get through to get yourself back on track. Without this there is no way I could have got back into work.”

Ryan was waiting impatiently to be subbed on. He was part the first course run in Edinburgh last summer and had stayed in touch. He had come along in his shorts and trainers to be part of the match because he loves the sport, but mainly to show solidarity to an organisation which had revolutionised his life.

“I’d played rugby league in Liverpool when I was a kid and so as soon as I heard about this I jumped in – and I had a ball,” he says. “I lost seven stone and got a job. I became more confident in myself and I obviously wanted to come back and help these guys out as much as they have helped me.”

“Confidence and fitness,” he states firmly, when asked what he had got out of the course. “They pushed me to limits I’d never been pushed to before. You can stop when you want to, but they don’t want you to stop, they want you to push yourself. And because they think you can do it, you think you can do it – and you realise that you want to do it.”

“I now go out for a wee run when I’ve got a spare moment, which I would never have thought about doing before. The confidence, though, that has been massive.”

Marianne is enthusiastically cheering on the men’s game. “They are our team-mates – we’ve all done this together – I wish I could be out there with them,” she explains, before admitting to being slightly frustrated that a disparity in rugby ability meant that the women’s game had to be non-contact so that everyone could take part.

“I had to move to Edinburgh from down south in April with my two daughters, leaving all my friends and a job I loved behind. I didn’t know anyone and I needed to do something and this has been the most amazing thing I’ve done,” she reveals.

“I was in the job centre and I saw Calum [Gauld – course facilitator] and he asked me if I wanted to play rugby. Now, I’m a really girly girl and the thought of playing rugby was quite hard to get my head around – but I was interested and my job coach encouraged me to give it a shot. I just thought, why not? What have I got to lose?”

“The great thing about this is that it is all different people from different backgrounds coming together and helping each other along. I just love the whole team-building side of it. When you do contact it makes you have that bond which you don’t get anywhere else.”

“The course has helped us all see that we can benefit from a growth mind-set, and that has been a massive thing for me. It has taught me that I can do anything. It pushes you out of your comfort zone and that build’s confidence. Also, I’ve made some friends for life.”

Across the whole of the UK, the impact of SoHK has been measured using the Warwick-Edinburgh Mental Wellbeing Scale, which revealed that over 90% of participants have reported improvements in self-confidence, motivation and hopefulness.

A recent two-year study by Mind, a leading UK charity which supports people experiencing mental health problems, reports that exercise reduces the risk of depression by up to 30%.



“Employed adults are healthier, wealthier and happier, with profound positive consequences for their mental and physical well-being, and for the economic situation of the individual and their dependents. Employment means people are also less likely to offend, to experience homelessness or fall into addiction,” surmises Rosanna Innes, programme manager for SoHK in Scotland.

“The climax of the course is the end-of-term rugby match against a local side. This is a really empowering event that helps illustrate to those taking part how far they’ve come,” continues Innes. “The last activity of the course is a graduation ceremony where they players get together with friends, family and community members to receive their certificates and celebrate their achievements.”

A day in the life of a SoHK participant –

The adult employability programme is an eight-week course for adults aged 18 or over – there is no upper age limit – specifically designed to support them in improving their mental and physical health, their confidence, motivation and their feeling of being part of the community.

Participants arrive at 9am for a hot, healthy breakfast. Physical activity starts at 10am with an hour of rugby-based fitness training. From 11am to noon, participants take part on a classroom session that will result in them gaining two qualifications – SVQ Level 4 Employability Award and Community Achievement Award – in partnership with Edinburgh College.

 At noon participants will enjoy a homemade hot and healthy lunch, then from 12.30pm to 1.30pm a series of modules are delivered by the SoHK programme facilitators dealing with topics such as: anxiety management, mental health first aid, growth mind-set, nutrition, financial literacy (in partnership with RBS), benefits calculator (in partnership with Job Centre Plus), confidence building, energy-saving (in partnership with Warm Works/ Wise Group), CV building, mock interviews, goal setting and overcoming barriers.  From 1.30pm- 2.30pm participants will do another hour of rugby training.

All participants will receive regular one-to-one catch-ups with a course coach or facilitator to help them identify goals and reduce barriers to achieving them. At these meetings, staff will help participants with issues such as claiming benefits, finding work despite convictions, confidence building, literacy/numeracy, housing issues, social issues and more.

Lismore’s RFC’s nearby clubrooms was the venue for the award ceremony after December’s match. Speeches were made, applause was warmly shared and a few tears were shed. It was a proper rugby club atmosphere.

We spend a lot of time these days focussed on the money-driven performance arm of the game, which seems to ride rough-shod over the community side of the sport with ever increasing disdain, so it is inspiring to see two of the biggest names in Scottish rugby supporting this worthy cause.

Scotland men’s cap and Olympic silver medallist Mark Bennett and Scotland Women’s captain Lisa Martin are enthusiastic patrons of the organisation, and will be guest coaches on Sunday afternoon when SoHK Scotland take on a Scottish Parliament select team on Murrayfield’s back pitches [kick-off: 1pm]. Entry is free.




  • SOHK are recruiting participants for their 2018 courses in Scotland. If you or a friend are over 18, unemployed and up for a challenge contact the Scotland Course Facilitator, Calum Gauld, on




REMEMBER: A little can go a long way … but a lot can go further –

£5 – a healthy hot breakfast and lunch for a participant for one day

£10 – one mentoring session for an adult beneficiary

£75 – funds a day of an unemployment course for one adult

£100 – trains and matches a volunteer with an unemployed adult

£600 – funds a whole year of rugby and mentoring for a child at risk of exclusion

£1000 – funds one adult through an 8-week employability course

£10,000 – funds a whole year of rugby and mentoring for a group at one school


  • For more information on SoHK Scotland or to get involved with fundraising, please contact –

Rosanna Innes

Programme Manager, Scotland





About David Barnes 3959 Articles
David has worked as a freelance rugby journalist since 2004 covering every level of the game in Scotland for publications including The Herald/Sunday Herald, The Sunday Times, The Telegraph, The Scotsman/Scotland on Sunday/Evening News, The Daily Record, The Daily Mail/Mail on Sunday and The Sun.