This year, United Learning, in collaboration with the Rugby Football Union (RFU), has launched an exciting pilot programme across 14 of our secondary academies to enhance the coordination and delivery of rugby union activities and ultimately encourage more young people into the sport. Driving the initiative are United Learning’s newly appointed Rugby Union Specialists, James Wright and Alex Wilson, who are respectively working with academies in the North West of England and along the South coast.
As the new academic year gets underway, we spoke to James and Alex who told us how they hope to benefit students and staff through their role and why it’s so important – now more than ever – that we encourage our young people into grassroots sport.
Can you tell us about your background in the sport?
James: Growing up in Manchester, my first experience of playing rugby was when I was in secondary school. My dad had a contact at our local rugby club, Eccles RFC, in the heart of Salford so I decided to go and see what it was like. After only a couple of sessions I fell in love with the sport and have been playing and coaching there ever since.
Alex: I started playing rugby at around the age of six and I continued to play to a high standard until I was in my late teens. I took some time away from the sport for almost a decade, until my then nine-year-old stepdaughter expressed an interest. At that point I re-entered the sport on the coaching side and helped to build up the Girls’ section at Worthing RFC, which is now 100 players strong! I went on to qualify as a professional rugby coach.
How will you be working with students and staff across our academies?
James: All schools work in their own way when it comes to delivering rugby. The way Alex and I are working with each academy is on a school-by-school basis. This might mean providing in-lesson support working alongside PE teachers in curriculum time and/or running bespoke CPD sessions. We’ve already been supporting teachers in how they can adapt rugby sessions to suit students of all experiences and backgrounds. In addition we are leading new extra-curricular clubs and helping to provide new competitive opportunities working in partnership with local school sport organisations. Wherever possible, we’re also helping to strengthen the links between the academies and their local rugby clubs for both girls and boys.
Alex: We are working to ignite a love for the game among students and staff alike – an essential part of creating a sustainable rugby programme in schools. We want to win hearts and minds by deconstructing the misconception that rugby is a purely contact sport. If rugby is taught through its core principles – attack and evade – it’s essentially a skills-based, intuitive running game. We are bringing the new formats of rugby into schools and supporting the teachers in being confident to teach them.
How does taking part in a team sport like rugby benefit students?
James: United Learning’s aim is to bring out the best in everyone and develop each and every student into well-rounded, confident young people. Team sport is integral to ensuring we can achieve this. It helps individuals understand when it’s the right time to speak up and when it’s the right time to listen, when to lead and when to follow. It gives our young people the opportunity to develop their communication and collaboration skills, which are essential to ensuring they can lead successful lives both now and when they enter the world of work.
Alex: As James said, the qualities and skills students develop on the pitch are something they can then use to their benefit in the classroom and beyond. Rugby as a sport has five core values which are Teamwork, Respect, Enjoyment, Discipline and Sportsmanship (TREDS) – something all rugby players across England are familiar with and expected to uphold. As a coach, I’ve witnessed time and time again how rugby has improved the lives of young people by instilling in them these values.
Given the challenges of the past eighteen months, would you say it’s important, now more than ever, to encourage young people to get involved in school sport?
James: Yes, definitely. Over the past eighteen months, we’ve all spent an awful lot of time in isolation. Alongside the significant health benefits, school sport provides an organised and safe environment where young people can meet up with their friends, have fun, positive experiences, learn new skills and build up a sense of team morale. We need to be inspiring our young people to get outside and lead active lifestyles.
Alex: I completely agree. Before taking on this role, and as well as being a rugby coach, I ran my own counselling agency. From my own experience, I know that anxiety in our young people has skyrocketed since the first national Lockdown. It is crucial that we are encouraging them to get outside, engage in sport, be active and interact with other people. Joining a rugby team means becoming part of a support network, where you have thirty friends and teammates who are all going to be there for you. That’s why sport is so powerful – not only does it benefit our physical health but also our mental fitness.
Can you tell us a bit more about how you’ll be encouraging our young women into the sport?
James: Rugby is fundamentally a sport for everyone. It doesn’t distinguish between shape, size or personality, and it definitely crosses the gender divide. I have run the ladies section at my local rugby club for the past seven years and likewise the Greater Manchester Girls Network to connect likeminded female rugby players. We need to make sure that, across the country, we’re giving young girls the opportunity to get involved in rugby at a community level and developing important networks like this.
Alex: I think a key part of encouraging young women into the sport is highlighting that there really is no single body type required to play rugby. Rugby is a skills-based and dynamic game that demands teamwork and tactical analysis, and can be taught in a multitude of ways. Demand for and interest in the sport is there – we just need to make sure we’re making rugby feel accessible to our young women and giving them to confidence to get stuck in.
How will working as part of a Multi-Academy Trust help you in your role?
James: Delivering the project as part of United Learning has massively accelerated the initial delivery stages of the programme and has enabled Alex and I to start working ‘on the ground’ as quickly as possible. It’s been much easier for us to get in touch with the right contacts in the right academies and arrange lessons or extra-curricular activities.
Alex: It is also very helpful in enabling us to build up positive attitudes towards rugby nationwide, as opposed to within an isolated area. With James working with academies and local rugby clubs in the North and myself in the South, we’re hoping to prove that no matter where you are in the country, delivering rugby in this way does work and it does have a meaningful impact. Already, one of the schools I’m working with, Shoreham Academy, has seen a transformation in students taking up the sport; there are now ten girls at the school playing rugby when a few weeks ago there were none.
In the next three to five years what transformation do you hope to see in school rugby?
James: I want to see a stronger connection between school rugby and club rugby, as well as competitive girls’ fixtures becoming a regular in the school sport calendar. Hopefully, in the future, we can move towards creating some mixed teams. Whilst this would become more difficult as students get older, it would certainly benefit those in the younger year groups when the focus is really on developing those key skills and learning the tactics of the game.
Alex: Personally, I want to be able to leave this sport better than I found it. I want to see teams, both in schools and in the local community, exponentially growing; it’s all about creating a butterfly effect. I hope we can create a culture that inspires existing students to motivate the next generation so that we can continue to build a strong pipeline of talent in the sport.