Opinion: fresh and bold thinking needed to broaden Scottish rugby’s base

Alan Lorimer looks at the perennial problem of growing the game in Scotland

Scottish rugby needs more youth and school programmes operating at a similar level ton the top private schools. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk
Scottish rugby needs more youth and school programmes operating at a similar level ton the top private schools. Image: © Craig Watson - www.craigwatson.co.uk

IT’S a problem that has exercised the minds of Murrayfield mandarins for decades but thus far there is no golden solution to the perpetual concern of a contracting game at youth level and its ultimate knock-on effect on every stratum of the game. 

Broadening the base of rugby’s pyramid has never been easy given the backdrop of a continuous decline in extra curricular school sport within the state sector. Nor has it been helped by a mirroring of this trend in parts of the private sphere of education, albeit any shrinkage within some independent schools has been more than countered by the astonishingly high standards being set by a coterie of five or six leading private establishments.

It’s the likes of Merchiston, Stewart’s-Melville, George Watson’s, Dollar and until very recently Strathallan who have forged ahead of the rest of the pack setting a pace that has put them in a league of their own to the extent that these schools now look beyond the Scotland border to find meaningful opposition.


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These schools essentially operate in a professional manner resulting in their players gaining huge advantages over their less privileged peers in the state sector. And little wonder this occurs, with acres of playing fields, with the opportunity to train every day and in daylight, with the input of top coaches and specialist strength and conditioning advisers, with the wherewithal to go on tour … and so on. Added together it is a system that allows young players to reach their potential.

Be in no doubt that these top private schools achieve eye-watering outcomes that contribute immensely to Scotland’s stock of talented players. And for that they deserve plaudits. And indeed without these elite private schools, Scottish rugby would struggle to survive.

The private sector, however, accounts for only 4.7% of the school age population in Scotland which begs the question: what is happening, or, perhaps, not happening, with the remaining 95.3%? It’s a question that the older generation, who, in their youth, would have enjoyed regular Saturday morning rugby in state secondaries throughout Scotland, might well ask.

That was then: now the picture in state secondary schools would be unrecognisable to many who hark back to what was regarded as a golden age of schools rugby, when the likes of Kirkcaldy High School, Aberdeen Grammar School, Paisley Grammar and Morgan Academy would field teams in every year,  drawing on the willingness of non-specialist teachers to give up weekend time to help out.

The reasons for the decline in state school rugby have been well documented, and include massive extra burdens placed upon the teaching profession, constant changes to the curriculum, changes to societal norms and, not least, a change in physical education from teaching sports skills to one that is part classroom based, preparing pupils for exams, and thus reducing the time that might be better spent on active sport.

Indeed, in an era when schools are assessed largely on academic results to the exclusion of wider character-building aspects of education – music, drama, outdoor pursuits, to mention three – it is no wonder that secondary schools are often regarded as little more than exam factories.

Decline in active sports has also been hastened by fear of litigation and the (quite correct) insistence that all those involved in delivering sport are properly accredited and hold, at the very least, basic coaching qualifications. Moreover. the view that a state school should ‘push’ any particular sport is now quite rightly politically incorrect. Schools certainly do not have an obligation to Scottish Rugby to provide a talent stream.

All of which might suggest that there is little hope for rugby within the Scottish education sector. But you only have to look at nine secondary schools in the Scottish Borders to find that rugby is in a healthy state. Of course that has much to do with rugby being culturally embedded and community backed in the region as with any deliberate policy to make sure the sport is pursued.

What is encouraging is that all secondary schools in this part of Scotland still manage to field teams on a Saturday from years S1 to S3. There are other areas in Scotland where rugby still flourishes in state schools, but in the main these tend to be in rural communities. Sadly, in the areas of big population, the central belt and the cities, the picture is bleak.

 

So, what can Scottish Rugby do to change this canvas?  The answer lies in backing the system by which state school players learn and play rugby. Which is the club youth programme. What the governing body must do is support clubs who, through their development officers, perform outreach work in surrounding schools, and who, by training skilful coaches, achieve good results. Such schemes are costly but if Scotland is to produce enough young players to sustain the game at multi levels then serious financing must go into this sector.

Proof that youth rugby, when given the right conditions to develop, can match the standards set by the top private schools is provided by Boroughmuir, whose performances sent out further signals that at the elite end of age-grade rugby the best schools and best clubs should be competing in the same league.

It is of course all too easy to demand that Murrayfield solves all the problems associated with age-grade rugby but the reality is that the governing body has only limited powers to effect any radical change. What it could do however is get together with other leading sports and talk to the Scottish Government.

Murrayfield could again remind Scottish Government of the need to address rising levels of obesity, poor levels of fitness and the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle amongst young people. It could lobby for more active sport to return to schools and back this up by any number of studies showing the positive link between physical exercise and higher academic outcomes. Mens San in Corpore Sano is hardly a recent thought and in this century it appears to have worked wonders in the Stirling primary school that introduced the ‘mile a day’ routine.

And isn’t this wider interpretation of education what so many private schools practise? What parents fork out huge sums for? Yet in the state sector the trend seems to be for a day spent sitting in classrooms. Little wonder then that in one city school earlier this year a number of disengaged boys took to the physicality of rugby when the game was introduced by a club development officer.

To conclude, and at the risk of attracting the ire of the education profession, might I suggest that the school day be extended with teachers perhaps working shifts to accommodate space for non-classroom activity.  It would be a radical move but if it helped solve a number of contemporary problems then it might just be the solution.


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About Alan Lorimer 239 Articles
Scotland rugby correspondent for The Times for six years and subsequently contributed to Sunday Times, Daily and Sunday Telegraph, Scotsman, Herald, Scotland on Sunday, Sunday Herald and Reuters. Worked in Radio for BBC. Alan is Scottish rugby journalism's leading voice when it comes to youth and schools rugby.

25 Comments

  1. Why are Marr College (not a school side but a club side representing many schools and school leavers … and coached by parents (who do not always maintain standards) not teachers) not entering the national youth league? Very odd. Problematic even. Could be in a final at Murrayfiled v Stirling or Ayr or Boroughmuir etc.

  2. Great to see positive and constructive comments. The SRU and clubs can only do so much but the heart of the problem lies at government and it’s failure to grasp what education is about and properly invest in it. A key part, largely ignored is what I call the extra curricular activities, be they sports or the arts. I believe every child has a talent and it is up to us to give them the opportunity to fulfil that talent. Education is our future, it bring broader wealth across our country and in the long term help our ailing health service.
    The SRU can help by maybe paying and training teachers to teach rugby at schools but ultimately it had to be led by government. The demand for private school education continues to grow because parents realise their child will get a chance of participating in sports or the arts. This should be the right of every child to have this opportunity but I fear it will never happen.

  3. Great to have a piece covering this. Thank you Alan. The points you raise are absolutely on the money!
    I believe the 4% (Independent School) are already squeezing as much talent as they can from the very small stone that they are. They are mostly self funded so really don’t need a great deal of the SRU’s finance,focus and attention. Their talent will progress and will thrive regardless. The weight of activity needs to be spent on the 96% state school talent. It works in Wales, so why not in Scotland? The school strikes in Scotland in the 1980’s set a pattern for teachers not feeling compelled to be involved in extra-mural/after-school support in sport. So today, unless you have a rugby enthusiast at a state school, they are unlikely to be able to organise, train and muster 5-8 secondary school teams to play conference level fixtures each week. Also in many ways it’s not their fault. The education budgets have been cut so heavily by the SNP so they simply don’t have the people or equipment/resources available. The solution has to be partnerships driven between club and school. At Strathendrick RFC we copied the Bell Baxter model 9 years ago, established a 3 way signed partnership agreement between SRU, Club and School and set about planning, sharing and mobilizing people from club, school and community. Starting with just 1 team (a combined S1/2 team) we turned a football dominated school into a rugby school within 6 years. We now have 5 competitive boys teams playing conference rugby and 3 competitive girls teams (2 last year) from a school roll of only circa 850. They are supported by 36 qualified coaches all from the rugby club but the kids represent their school in competitions. I believe that the DO’s role in most regions should be focusing on helping clubs create such a model and not trying to do everything themselves. Sure they will do some hands on coaching but they should be focused on helping get parents and volunteers involved and qualified. ie become the conductor not the musician. DO’s need to be more strategic, have tangible targets and build micro plans with clubs and schools to piece together the infrastructure of people and resources to make things happen in their region. Too many people in Scotland think its too much effort for too little gain to focus in the long term on state school rugby. Well if all the clubs had adopted the Strathendrick/ Bell Baxter model 7 years ago, Scotland would now have circa 70,000 registered players (like Wales) instead of circa 32,000-34,000. It’s time to start now and in 7 years time rugby in Scotland could easily be thriving and draw its talent from all communities.

    • Personally been very impressed by the year or year skills improvements shown by Endrick/Balfron youth teams. I officiated their U16 last year and whilst they were defeated it was a really superb game and they had HUGE invested support which matters.

      • Thanks Ed. We were really pleased to have both Balfron/Strathendrick’s U16 and U18’s reach the schools quarter finals this year. Our U16’s reached the semis and had a close game with QVS who were the eventual cup winners. I believe this level and standard could be achieved by most state schools given the right support. 7-8 years ago we were no different to any of Scotland’s state schools. We had exactly the same challenges; we have progressively worked through these to overcome them. I have to say that the SRU have been extremely supportive over this time once we made it clear what our strategic aims and goals were.

  4. The bulk of all these replies sums it up. We need more DO’s funded by the SRU and the Scottish Government in State Schools.

  5. So, on a day when your home page describes (another) tragic story of head trauma, why, in fact, would we have another story on “how to broaden rugby’s base”?

    This is a sport (I played it, have coached it, and my sons play at pro level) which is now clinically lethal and yet we blithely believe that it should grow? I have seen (and I am now in the process of hoping/coaching my youngest in to different sporting paths) no serious attempt to address it’s, er, head on collision with the reality of head trauma. Pathetic protocols, arbitrary application, confusing messaging on the international stage, and an almost weekly role call of early onset dementia, CTE, MND and, tragically, early suicide.

    This is a sport with far bigger existential challenges than “growing the base”. Why doesn’t The Offside Line make more of this than rose-tinted, eyes-averted reporting?

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  6. The line that boomed from your excellent piece…
    “drawing on the willingness of non-specialist teachers to give up weekend time to help out”
    With the rise of the everyone’s a winner mentality, is there a wonder competitive sports have taken a major knock 🤷‍♂️

  7. Great article…… BUT………define the problem – should we be worried about
    1/ the National age grade game?
    2/ How the age grade game links into the adult game?
    3/ the declining number of >18s progressing into Senior rugby an issue?

    The above may all be linked, I suspect they are, BUT what problem are we trying to solve.
    In reverse order
    – there’s kids, girls & boys, out there keen to play sport if you give them good Coaching and a Forum. The recent Falkirk Schools Cup, pulled together by happenchance over 8 weeks on a shoestring had over 85 boys competing from just 4 High Schools. The raw material is there. The Schools Cup will be repeated for both Girls and Boys next season.
    WHY – not to recruit, but simply to put smiles on faces.
    The raw material is there.
    – Kids playing at school have no avidity with any Club. That needs to be earned.
    We need to think about that.
    – Age Grade, imo, too small a pond.
    Too few good games.
    Early developers are preferred, and struggle once they come up against more battle hardened opponents.
    Really quite simple.
    We need to be asking
    – is Cricket &/or 7s more important than Union?
    – how do we get the raw material engaged earlier with good Coaches.

  8. There is no question its a numbers game. The bigger the base, the bigger the number that will filter through to the elite level. But placing a single Development Officer in even one secondary and its feeder primaries is asking too much of one person. Multiple DO’s are needed working as a team in a group of schools. Time to invest more in DO’s in the state school sector or our sport will continue to struggle for numbers

  9. As a PE teacher, ex rugby player and a coach; I think the issues are more than the burden on teachers from the school side.

    Issues with rugby in schools (PE and extra curricular)
    •rugby ready. SRU enforce the rugby ready (or right or whatever it is called), so you can teach/coach rugby. That instantly deters staff.
    •lack of DO funding. Many DOs posts within a club are gone and changes to a regionalised DO (in areas with smaller clubs). So for example the DO post in Dundee is for Dundee and Angus. I can say for sure the DO had one meeting with us 4 years ago, promised us so much and has not been seen since. To hit their KPIs it easier to work with schools who have a team running rather than help those who don’t.
    •fixtures structure. Games start in august. And so do schools. Those schools who don’t have thriving local clubs need to recruit pupils through PE lessons and extra curricular clubs. That can take a few months. So fixtures need to be development festivals until Xmas then into the club/conference.
    •money. Schools are under funded. There is no money for extra curricular. For curriculum schools are lucky to get £800 per year. Many equipment that is used regularly needs replaced and the perishables (badminton racquets, shuttles, table tennis balls, footballs etc). So many sports (rugby, hockey, gymnastics) equipment is old or non existent.
    To teach rugby you need rugby balls, shields and bags. Big investment for the second 2.
    Then there is lots for games. Buses and hire of pitch as many schools have no rugby pitch.

    What can be done by SRU
    •fund local DOs and community coaches
    •fund schools with equipment and kit (new or upcycled). They could collect old equipment form clubs and re distribute. Also would help the carbon footprint.
    •grants that don’t have t and cs (many state school must prove competing in tier 4 etc).
    • look at an adapted game. School 10s, no conversions (means game can be played on a football pitch with cones for 22 etc.
    • start competitive fixture post Christmas.

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    • Thanks for that comment. It’s really helpful to get input from people on the front line. Your suggestions are sensible and actionable.

      As an aside I bought tackle bags and training balls a few weeks ago – £1200 and just about to spend £500 on match balls for the first half of the season.

  10. Not really sure I understand your reply Andrew, if you expanded your point of view I may grasp what your view point is.

  11. Whilst growing the game might seem like an obvious ambition, the last time I looked, Scottish Rugby has still not apologised for the ridiculous “fewer, but stronger” strategy, or the policy that prevents kids from playing both school and club rugby on the same weekend (I believe we’re the only major rugby playing nation not to adopt the World Rugbys 90 minutes playing time per day).

    Perhaps Murrayfield should encourage Clubs to invest more in community coaches to grow playing numbers instead of Clubs using their funds to keep their bars alive (but no, they run bar best practice workshops, that don’t even discuss when it’s time to stop underwriting a sector of the economy that’s struggling).

    Another option could be to get development staff to focus more on delivering sessions to kids with the aim to enouraging them to join local Clubs.

    Plenty of options for actions that can be taken, with different Clubs needing different solutions – but the first thing that’s needed is some leadership from our leaders.

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  12. The fact that state schools in the Borders can still produce teams would suggest its not primarily an education sector problem.

    • As an u-18 coach in the borders I can confirm the game is not in as healthy a state as some may lead you to believe. 4 weeks out from the season we are still scrapping around to field a xv. The main issue I have is the two year age banding which for front rows is correct but for other positions palyers are held back because they have birthdays a week to late. With this rule gone most u-18 teams would comfortably field a squad of 20+ but if you have one year light of players you are essentialy trying to pick a squad from one year group.

  13. Whilst some state schools might embrace a renewed emphasis on rugby at their schools, perhaps revisiting the post ww2 Duke of Edinburgh Playing Field Scheme whereby access for all schoolkids in any particular area might achieve a critical mass through shared coaching & conditioning across schools might gain better results.

  14. You are correct that Scottish Rugby cannot correct all the ills of the community game. It could at least take a more active interest in identifying the problems and working with others to resolve them?

    I do wonder how committed those in Murrayfield are to the club game? The fewer but stronger tag wasn’t conjured out of thin air. And even if it was apocryphal it seems to be an approach from EH12.

    Increasing player numbers is essential. Without it the game dies. My view is we have around 5000 active players with another 5-6k irregular ones. Needing 80 or so players to get 2 teams out is outrageous. Change the laws to reflect the game. Rugby is a game of evasion and needs to go back to more aerobic requirements (like stopping wholesale replacement of front rows).

    We also need to get into the modern world of young people development. Give kids multi sports to play to develop motor skills. It’s about enjoyment and fun with your pals. S&C at 12? No thanks. David Epstein in Range speaks about this. Why aren’t Scottish sports doing more just to get kids active rather than doing specific sports?

    How many of the players in the private schools you mention continue in the game post school? Never mind who progress to pro rugby

    The private schools have the money and time to do their thing. Investment is needed where that’s not happening.

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    • I don’t think there is investment in sport across the state school system. In today’s world it takes money to develop talent and sport. We do not do that in Scotland through the schooling years.
      Maybe we should accept that the private school system is the right model – it’s money driven. The success of their rugby teams is success for the schools is success for the bottom line. Parents pay for their children to go to these schools for their sporting prowess. The schools provide that very successfully and flourish as a result.
      The reason, imo, that the SRU appear not to support grass routes is that the SRU are also a revenue / profit organisation so where is the revenue / profit to the SRU from grass routes.
      Creating models similar to the private schools in the non-private domain is probably an answer. Where there is success like Boroughmuir and the borders that is probably at the core of their success – its a highly structured setup paid for by those who want to be part of rugby and be successful but not wanting, for whatever reason, to be in private education.

      You have to pay for quality and out of that comes success.

      Look wider across sport – when performance drops and Olympic or elite funding is removed – performance drops and returning to the top again is a real challenge and struggle.

      I don’t think asking teaching staff in state schools to do more or work shifts is viable and is missing the real issue of funding deficit.

    • “I do wonder how committed those in Murrayfield are to the club game?”

      Come on Dom, you know the answer to that like the rest of us. They don’t!

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  15. A couple of years ago there was an article on this forum about a private and state school teaming up to share coaches,facilities etc Somewhere in Fife or Perthshire I believe.
    It struck me at the time that it was a blindingly obvious solution to the lack of state school involvement.
    Haven’t read anywhere since if the project was taken forward elsewhere

  16. I understand why Dodson invested in the elite end at the beginning of his regime but there are no more benefits to achieve from that strategy, the only way to continue moving Scottish rugby forward is to broaden its base, get more talent into the game and moving through better professional pathways.

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  17. Excellent article. We must broaden the base. Paying average players money to play a sport they claim to love is not the way forward. There simply isn’t enough players . I notice there are quite a few imports in the S6 squads – because as a Nation we are not producing players at all levels. As Mr Milne says “we need more poor players” to allow the best to rise.

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