Last Monday The Guardian reported that Mossbourne Academy in Hackney are to offer up to ten places at the oversubscribed school for pupils with potential rowing ability. There were some strong opinions, I thought my background qualified me to wade in on the situation. I'm a current World Champion (GB men's eight) but my journey to this point started at a Comprehensive school boat club in Durham.
Rowing is often seen as a southern public school boy sport. You'd be right in thinking that many who get the chance to give rowing a go come from a public school. Rowing equipment and access to premises by the river / lake / sea are expensive, that immediately limits the reach the sport can have. When you can grab a pair of trainers for £20, access is quite different compared to equipment costs running into the tens of thousands. While all this is true, the chance to try (and succeed at) rowing is not restricted to the Eton's of this world. British Rowing (backed with Lottery funds) and clubs up and down the country spearhead access for all; a series of projects aid clubs with purchasing boats, employing coaches and providing regional resources and support. Most of us will have a rowing club within a short distance, quite possibly tucked away, that you never knew existed. All of them will run 'learn to row' courses and many have partnerships with local schools and colleges to provide the platform for state schools to take to the water. In the capital, organisations like London Youth Rowing take rowing into schools, Mossbourne Academy is one of these.
So if rowing isn't just available to posh kids, shouldn't the national team reflect that? - it does. I'm not in the minority by having an accent and I'd say easily over half of my team mates came from state schools, universities or local rowing clubs. While there may be many who try rowing at public schools, daddy can't buy talent and the finish line doesn't respect the size of his wallet. The wheat gets separated from the chaff (or should I say chuff) pretty easily. To say a rower only made it because they went to a public school is pretty offensive, their hard work got them to the top and to say otherwise is ill informed of the realities of international rowing.
So where are the limitations? Organising and coaching, pure and simple. I never had any limitations coming from St Leonard's R.C Comp. Durham because the rowing was well run and had the support of the staff. Due to the support of my parents and St Leonard's, I left school as a Junior World Champion in the GB Junior four. I didn't achieve that because I had a great physical or financial advantage, I did it because those around me gave me the space to be the best I could be and I trained hard, really hard. There are a number of state funded schools across the UK that provide the platform for young rowers to achieve their full potential. It is being done independently and in conjunction with local clubs. Mossbourne Academy is looking to do the same and is using talent ID to drive that program on. Half the challenge for youth sport is organisation, if it's being badly run then that's a far greater impairment than access to the very best equipment. School staff can teach many lessons outside the classroom walls, we create better school leavers when we empower individuals to take a risk and try new things.
Coming from a Catholic school I don't have such a hang up on school admissions policies either. I received a Catholic education, on the whole exactly the same as any other state pupil, but with a R.E. and pastoral emphasis on learning more about my faith. Not everyone was Catholic and not everyone joined the boat club, but the opportunity was there. I believe all schools should set out their stall and deliver exceptional and unique opportunities for their pupils. The time and resources available will mean schools will naturally specialise. State schools shouldn't be alone in saying "we're going to be epic" at music, drama or specific sports. We all hear of schools that have a reputation for always fielding a good football team, putting on great theatre performances or producing pupils with great engineering talent. If schools provide the opportunity to excel to those with an aptitude in the given extra curricular area it provides a boost to fellow pupils, the local area and the region. Mossbourne Academy is saying "we have the facilities, we want to deliver the opportunity", there is nothing stopping any other school doing the same.
I encourage any school to dare to be, be that school that offers challenges for their pupils to conquer, the school that prepares children for the world as well as their GCSEs. Creating the employees and employers you want to work with won't be solely done in the isolation of a classroom, nobody said "go work for her, she was great at GCSE physics".
To those that say the scheme will snatch pupils that have the greater ambition and drive, why not join a sports club and discover those characteristics for yourself. If you want to try rowing, whatever your age, find your local club on the British Rowing 'club finder' page. And if you fancy bringing a school group or your family to meet and compete (on rowing machines) against Britain's Olympic rowers then check out the website for the British Rowing Indoor Championships at the Olympic Velodrome on 8th Feb. (open to spectators if you don't want to break sweat!).
Well done Mossbourne Academy, may you and other schools continue to offer unique opportunities.