SCOTTISH RUGBY took the first step towards tackling the issue of how to better support and grow the sport in the state school sector earlier today [Wednesday] with the unveiling of a six-year strategy document. This included a commitment of £540,000 per annum new investment in this important area, but the presentation paper was light on detail when it came to the current state of play and on measurable targets to judge progress against.
Given that the state sector educates 96.1 per cent of school pupils in Scotland, and bearing in mind growing concerns about participation levels dropping off at an alarming rate over the last decade or more, it is fair to say that this “statement of intent around increasing state school rugby participation” is long overdue – especially as Scottish Rugby received a £15m grant and a £5m low-interest loan from the Scottish Government last December, intended to help the sport recover from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
The strategy document explains that that there are 357 secondary schools in total across the country, with Scottish Rugby currently supporting 154 state schools and 22 independent schools to participate in organised rugby through either the conference structure or fixtures/festivals. While the stated aim is to grow the reach of rugby across all schools, no specific goals have been provided.
“We’ve not got hard targets at the moment,” said Gavin Scott, the former Caledonia Reds, Glasgow Warriors and Scotland A hooker, who had spells as national team analyst, manager and operations director, before being appointed Scottish Rugby’s Director of Rugby Development last August. “This is the first year of a strategy and one of the things we want to do in this year is to continue to consult with various stakeholders and to build a better picture of where we stand.
“We know how many state schools are playing conference rugby, and we know roughly the amount of midweek games played, but there is also rugby being played at a smaller scale which we don’t have a complete view of yet.
“So, by this time next year we will have firmer figure about where we want teams to progress, and that’s not just in terms of introducing rugby into schools that are not currently playing, but also developing rugby levels within schools so that hopefully we are going from ad hoc games midweek to transforming into five teams all playing rugby fixtures and with the ability to move into a conference programmes.
“It’s about us being able to give a scaffold to schools so that they can see where they can enter into the system and how we can support them.”
The new investment unveiled yesterday will include the recruitment of six ‘School Rugby Officers’ who will work with existing development officers to create pathways and programmes for both curriculum-based and extra-curricular rugby within schools. The recruitment process for three of the six roles is currently underway, with the following three roles are to be advertised before the end of the year.
Investment will also be available to support schools with equipment and other resources, along with development opportunities for teachers as coaches and match officials..
However, this plan to “develop capacity within schools by increasing the quantity and quality of teaching staff committed and able to support the development of rugby within their communities” seems rather fanciful at a time when teaching unions are seriously considering strike action over pay and workload.
For this reason, the document’s commitment to ramp-up the long-standing ‘Schools of Rugby’ programme appears to be a more promising line of attack, as this initiative has a proven track record of clubs working successfully with schools to promote the game. There are currently 43 Schools of Rugby operating across the country with some notable success stories.
“This strategy [document] marks an exciting new chapter in Scottish Rugby’s work with the education sector,” said Scott. “We recognise for many years now, independent education has been seen to be a leader in school rugby, and whilst they will continue to drive the game forward, it is our aim that with brand-new investment and directed support, Scottish Rugby can begin to bridge the gap between independent and state schools in rugby.
“Our strategy shows a clear statement of intent to enhance current offerings and develop new partnerships between schools, local authorities, clubs and other stakeholders, whilst also providing the necessary equipment, training and provision to enable state schools to deliver high quality programmes and rugby environments.
“The quality and variety of playing and training opportunities within state school settings has a significant influence on people’s lifelong engagement in rugby. We want to work collaboratively, and actively seek to engage with and include all members of our community to retain and grow the role of rugby throughout state schools, and support those within education settings to see that rugby is a force for good which has inclusion, respect and wellbeing at its core.”
Ultimately, the kind of investment (human and financial) required to really point state school rugby back in the right direction requires central government support, and Scott insisted that he and his team are in continual dialogue with the Scottish Government, although he conceded that fundamental change needs to be part of a wider conversation.
“We get significant funding from the Scottish Government,” he stressed. “We’re not involved in policy development in terms of the education curricular, however we have found ourselves improving over the last couple of years at finding ways where we’re more able to get rugby to fit as a product within schools.
“And I think that’s been one of our biggest learnings, that the landscape of state schools’ rugby has changed massively since I was there. There are less PE teachers who are traditional rugby coaches who will run five teams on their one on a Saturday morning.
“However, places like Aberdeenshire Council, for instance, are rolling out rugby as part of their curricular programme for everyone in their local authority area, because our team up there have managed to integrate our rugby programmes in a way that demonstrates that the sport can be a vehicle to close the attainment gap, to make kids more confident, and so on, as part of a wider programme – so it is not just letting them run around outside, it’s about trying to fit into other educational outcomes.”
“We firmly believe that there should be more than two hours per week of PE in school for senior pupils, and that PE and therefore sport should be more widely accessible both through the curriculum and as part of the school day,” he added.
As for closing that gap between the state and private sectors, Scott conceded that it is an aspiration rather than a realistic goal at this stage.
“It will take time. They have great rugby programmes and for a state school to emulate that would be a massive challenge,” he said. “I think we have to acknowledge that state schools aren’t ours. They have their own head teachers, they operate within local authorities and are overseen by the Scottish Government. So, it is quite a challenging landscape for us to work through, with loads of stakeholders.
“But I really see this as a baseline strategy, where we are saying that nationally we want to work with state schools who have the desire and invested people, to help them get to a standard where they can start to compete with more established schools, whether they are independent or not.”