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FEATURE Levelling the playing field for state-school youngsters

Levelling the playing field for state-school youngsters
4 months ago

When Finn Russell returns to his old school in Stirling to chuck a ball around, he is always guaranteed a warm welcome. But Chris Jubb, the school’s rugby teacher, is realistic. He knows that a sprinkling of international stardust every once in a while is not going to be enough to consistently inspire the next generation of state-educated elite players. Which is why Jubb and the coaches at other state schools and clubs around the country are welcoming the life-changing visits of a new rugby-loving social enterprise: Advice Academy.

Rugby, and the perception of it from the general population, remains distinctly “middle-class” or “elitist” in some quarters of the United Kingdom. Advice Academy has been set up to level the playing field – to help ensure that state-educated players have the same opportunities as their privately-educated counterparts.

And while founded in Hartpury, Gloucestershire, the not-for-profit organisation is having an impact on both sides of the England-Scotland border – regardless of whether a Six Nations is in full swing or not. It runs free half-term camps and pop-up coaching clinics for state-educated rugby players, and its social media platforms are full of coaching insights available to all.

Jubb, who heads up rugby in the PE department at Wallace High School in Stirling, sees for himself the way sport can raise confidence, resilience and a sense of self-worth in pupils, and he views Advice Academy as a “huge catalyst” for building participation in sport.

Finn Russell
Finn Russell came to professional rugby via a state-school background, but his was far from a traditional route (Photo Stu Forster/Getty Images)

“On Advice Academy’s first visit here, we had 60 kids and it gave the entire group a huge boost. It made the pupils feel that they have just as much right [as private school pupils] to get some specialist coaches to come in, and that they have talent too. And sometimes it’s just about putting some air in their tyres.

“I’m just a PE teacher with a passion for rugby. I want to pass on the good stuff. We can link in with Glasgow Warriors and Scottish Rugby but something like Advice Academy resonates with me as a state-educated teacher and with our pupils. Someone like George from Advice Academy is really going to champion them. We are going to find some diamonds in the rough. Why are we overlooking so many these kids?”

George Paul, who founded the social enterprise with friend Will Jones, is just 22 and is a bundle of energy and ideas. A fly-half for Boroughmuir Bears in Scotland’s Super6, he had the idea for Advice Academy while studying Business Management at Hartpury University. On Edinburgh’s books as a youngster, he is still benefiting from the friendships and personal growth he finds in the sport. Yet, as state-educated himself, he is aware of some of the barriers that can lie in front of aspiring players from less privileged backgrounds.

As a state school youngster, you can be playing rugby in school for a few hours a week for six weeks, versus kids in private schools playing four times a week, every week.

He describes his and Will’s mission as “changing the narrative for state-educated rugby players”.

“As a young state-educated lad who was completely passionate about pursuing a rugby career, it was all I cared about but I kept meeting certain obstacles,” recalls George. “Potentially I wasn’t good enough, but whenever you look around and you don’t know anybody, your dad doesn’t know anybody, you don’t know any coaches, but the other players do, you question what you are doing. I was the only state-educated kid in a lot of environments. Trial days were very private school-dominated for Scottish age-grade rugby.

“As a state school youngster, you can be playing rugby in school for a few hours a week for six weeks, versus kids in private schools playing four times a week, every week.”

Kids playing rugby
With levels of rugby provision varying widely, Paul hopes to set up camps across the UK (Photo by Whyler Photos of Stirling)

George acknowledges that the level of provision across the state sector in the UK varies hugely, from talent pipelines such as Beechen Cliff in Bath to schools where rugby just isn’t played at all. He appreciates that many state schools do brilliant work but wants the chances to be widened and pathways opened.

“There has got to be a change, to open doors and give some people chances. Kyle Sinckler, Lewis Ludlow, Courtney Lawes, Ellis Genge – there was a door for them to walk through which other state school kids haven’t been able to.

“It’s about driving change for state-educated rugby players. It’s a huge challenge but the market is there and the sport is there, so once the cogs get moving then I think things will move quickly. I’ve experienced such a level of support from players, coaches and parents, in person and on social media.”

Rugby is a brilliant sport for creating brilliant individuals and it’s not being leveraged enough. There are not enough initiatives being rolled out. This is bigger than rugby for me… I can see myself driving change for state-educated musicians or dancers – those who have aspirations.

One family to have experienced the life-changing impact of Advice Academy lives in the Forest of Dean, Gloucestershire. Kevin Oversby’s foster son, Toby, went on an Advice Academy course in the summer of 2022. Kevin says Toby, who is now 15, has had his life transformed through his time spent at local club Drybrook RFC and the inspiration of Advice Academy.

“When Toby arrived, he had no purpose or empathy after neglect. Then he found an outlet through sport,” says Kevin. “I’m a massive advocate of vulnerable children’s access to sport.

“Sport is directing Toby’s life now in a major way and Advice Academy was a major part in cementing that. They really encouraged him to be the best he could be and helped his training, nutrition and mental health, and it prompted him to stay on at the rugby club and he was player of the year last year.

“He’s off to South Africa on a rugby tour because of it and he’s totally focused on sport. He’s doing PE and he wants to do Sports Science at Hartpury and it’s all coming from the impact of Advice Academy. It’s given stability, empathy and teamwork, and a direction of where he wants to go. He has a purpose.

“They have taken the time at Advice Academy to stay in touch and that had an impact – they’re not just a one-hit wonder. This is something everybody deserves to have.”

Kids being coached
The Advice Academy camps provide nutrition advice as well as rugby coaching (Photo by Whyler Photos of Stirling)

Toby says: “The support and advice I received from Advice Academy was brilliant. There has been loads of nutrition advice as well as techniques to help me on the pitch. I would recommend them to anyone.”

Hearing of lives being reshaped by Advice Academy is inspiring for Paul, who wants to grow the social enterprise, but not so quickly that it is at the expense of an ethos which ensures there is an ongoing relationship with the schools and clubs involved. Funding from governing bodies such as the RFU would, he says, be a “game-changer”.

“In two years’ time I would like to be raising a lot of awareness with half-term camps over all the country with top coaching and nutrition. We would be in schools and liaising with teachers and parents, with backing from private companies and the public sector.

Because it’s a free service, parents in tough economic circumstances and schools without regular rugby union coaching get the chance to see their children and students gain exceptional support. The glee on youngsters’ faces is immediately clear.

“Rugby is a brilliant sport for creating brilliant individuals and it’s not being leveraged enough. There are not enough initiatives being rolled out.

“This is bigger than rugby for me. Rugby is my vehicle because it’s where I’m currently active. Depending on the future, I can see myself driving change for state-educated musicians or dancers – those who have aspirations.”

Coaches from Hartpury University, where the whole idea began, continue to be involved in Advice Academy as coaches and mentors, and Paul says Hartpury was an ideal spot to begin the venture because he was among many like-minded people.

“It was a brilliant place because I didn’t have to explain the need for this to happen in rugby. Everybody was so switched on about their rugby and everyone got behind it. The inspiration for Advice Academy stemmed from my own earlier years, but Hartpury was definitely a trampoline for Advice Academy to take off.”

Just down the road from Hartpury, Premiership side Gloucester is one elite club that is getting behind the charity’s work. Captain Lewis Ludlow has been involved in training at Advice Academy sessions, while director of rugby George Skivington acknowledges that more needs to be done to foster the development of players coming up through less obvious routes.

Independent schools in Gloucester’s hinterland such as Cheltenham College and Dean Close offer scholarships to promising rugby players from state backgrounds, but he believes that isn’t sufficient on its own. Skivington, who himself attended the rugby-focused John Fisher School, a state establishment in Croydon, says an American Football-style Scouting Combine event could be a means by which talented athletes from state schools could be identified by clubs. “I was at a state school and we probably punched above our weight but that’s not the case everywhere,” he says. “It can definitely get better.”

Lewis Ludlow
Gloucester’s Lewis Ludlow is a former pupil at Hartpury College and has helped with training sessions (Photo by Bob Bradford – CameraSport via Getty Images)

Ian Renouf-Watkins, a businessman in financial services who has mentored George Paul since they met at Hartpury, says Advice Academy is about unblocking the reservoir of rugby talent across all socio-economic levels in the UK. A failure to do so would be to potentially hold back the growth and success of rugby across communities.

It is also, he says, about seeing the smiles on young people’s faces.

“I’ve observed and absolutely believe that the work the Advice Academy is doing delivers a high-quality response to the game’s demographic imbalance,” says Renouf-Watkins. “The free coaching, nutrition guidance and confidence-building with state secondary pupils is having real and positive influence, using corporates and kit providers to fund it, and talented young coaches to deliver. Where possible, they also bring professional male and female players in to chat with youngsters, which adds real life role models to the mix.

“Delivering all of this at schools and grass roots clubs, it gives youngsters from different demographics a fantastic experience. And because it’s a free service, parents in tough economic circumstances and schools without regular rugby union coaching get the chance to see their children and students gain exceptional support. The glee on youngsters’ faces is immediately clear.”

Back in Stirling, Chris Jubb is also seeing the glee on his pupils’ faces. The blend of Finn Russell’s Midas touch and Advice Academy’s personal touch will, he hopes, inspire the next generation. “Anytime Finn is back in Stirling he is the first to come along to the school, he’s a great ambassador for what we do,” says Jubb. “Having good coaches and role models is so important for our kids, whether it’s Finn or partnerships like Advice Academy. What’s really important is that Advice Academy remembers pupils’ names and faces so the children don’t feel overlooked. It’s not just one visit and then they forget about us, it’s a partnership.

“It makes pupils realise they don’t have to go to independent schools.”

Comments

3 Comments
R
Rugby 123 days ago

Tom,
I totally enjoyed that, fantastic article, well researched and topical. Advice Academy I will follow their progress.

There is "Development of sport" and "sport for development". This is "sport for development".

Unicef also see the benefit of such things
#SPORT4CHANGE
Getting into the Game
Understanding the evidence for child-focused sport for development
www . unicef-irc.org / getting-into-the-game?utm_source=unicefinnocentihomepage

J
Jeremy 123 days ago

What a tremendous opportunity for these youngsters! Fantastic idea, looking forward to seeing results in the next few years!

A
Andrew 124 days ago

Great to have people like George willing to drive change where it’s needed, excited to see where all this goes !

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