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Special report: Rugby and cricket have a private school problem – but they are trying to fix it

Special report: How rugby and cricket are fighting private school dominance
Almost two-thirds of England's Six Nations squad attended a private school at some point in their education - Custom image

“When they hit 17, 18, we want them to have the skillset, ready to jump into professional sport.”

Looking over the pristine grounds of a Surrey enclave, Andrew Houston, Cranleigh’s director of sport, explains how the school has become one of the country’s leading developers of sporting talent. Five members of the current Harlequins rugby union squad were educated here; so were four Surrey cricketers, including England Test match vice-captain Ollie Pope.

These players benefited from Cranleigh’s facilities that include an indoor cricket bubble to train all year around, 13 rugby pitches, one-on-one coaching and the school’s vibrant sporting culture and tradition. Cranleigh encourages children to play a range of sports, rather than specialise prematurely, and young athletes often spend 15 hours a week training or playing at the school, alongside strength and conditioning work, bespoke video analysis and even sports psychology. Houston believes that children seeing those in older years become professionals has created a “snowball effect”.

Cricket and rugby, perhaps the two sports in which Cranleigh most excels, both face similar issues, however. Of England’s 30 cricketers since the start of the World Cup, of whom 28 were educated in the country, only 12 did not go to independent schools at all (57 per cent were privately educated). In rugby, England picked 31 players during the Six Nations, with 29 educated in the country; 19 of these (66 per cent) went to private school at some point.

These disparities are particularly acute in the home counties. At Harlequins, 22 out of the 34 players educated in Britain, 65 per cent, went to private schools at some point. Among Surrey’s under-15s cricketers, 71 per cent are independently educated; this rises to 81 per cent among those from under-16 to under-18 level. At senior level, this dominance is even more striking: 24 of Surrey’s 27 fully contracted players in their men’s squad were educated at private schools - 90 per cent.

These numbers tell many different stories simultaneously. They highlight the quality and quantity of the area’s independent schools: Harlequins are currently second in the Premiership; Surrey have won consecutive County Championship titles. They show the availability of scholarships and bursaries, including to some students from underprivileged backgrounds. And they illustrate that the system is not open enough to those from less elite backgrounds.

“We would be kidding ourselves if we said we could replicate the sort of environment that you’ve got in an independent school in every state school,” Steve Grainger, the executive director of rugby development at the Rugby Football Union, says. “The facilities that they’ve got - there’s just no way they’re going to get replicated in the state sector.” In terms of cricket matches and training, Alun Powell, the national talent manager at the England and Wales Cricket Board, explains, “there’s a big difference between what a 13, 14 year-old boy at an independent school and state school might be getting over the course of the week”.

The new strategy for a state school fightback, being adopted by cricket and rugby alike, is to develop hubs in a select number of state schools. These, it is hoped, will allow sports teams such as Harlequins and Surrey to target their resources more effectively, thereby ultimately ensuring that more players emerge from the state sector.

Harlequins turn to state school development

Seventeen miles away from Cranleigh, just north of Woking, lies Gordon’s School, which was founded as a tribute to General Gordon. Gordon’s occupies a curious status, as one of England’s 36 state boarding schools. Funding for the normal school day is covered by the state. Charges for either ‘day boarders’, who live at home but often stay at the school until 7.30pm, or residential boarders are funded either by students’ families or through means-tested bursaries.

From the main site, an overpass above a crowded road takes students to the school’s sports facilities. If these are not quite comparable to Cranleigh, they also reflect how Gordon’s is far better-resourced than most state schools.

In 2020, Gordon’s began a partnership with Harlequins, supported by Sport England’s Diploma in Sporting Excellence scheme. Under the agreement, Harlequins provide significant support to the school. They send coaches including Jim Evans, the club’s academy coach, for four sessions a week. At year 12, Gordon’s admits around 20 promising rugby players a year as part of their partnership with Harlequins; the vast majority moved from state schools. While some of these pupils pay the school charges, a significant number benefit from means-tested bursaries.

“It’s a state school pathway,” Jamie Harrison, the director of sport at Gordon’s, says. “It gives students the education, the programme, it nurtures them. It allows them to be in a safe environment to carry on their education and their rugby. It’s a brilliant way of doing it.”

Alongside their academic studies, those on the programme benefit from a focus on rugby normally considered the preserve of elite private schools such as Cranleigh.

“Coming here, you get a lot more opportunities,” Elliot Williams, a second row who moved from a state school to join Gordon’s last September and is set to be called up to the England Under-18s Six Nations squad, says. “Back at my old school, you’d have one training session a week. If you were lucky, you’d have a game every month or so.”

At Gordon’s, Elliot typically plays a game a week in the ACE League, the state school league that launched in 2009, alongside three training sessions, three gym sessions and video analysis, too. With some of the same coaches for school and club alike, the programme is designed to complement his Harlequins sessions, so that he can work on similar skills and train more lightly after games: “It’s all on the same page.”

Of the 20 lower sixth students currently on the programme, 12 are members of the Harlequins academy: an extraordinary one-third of the entire cohort. Since the scheme was launched four years ago, it has nurtured five players who have gone on to play professional rugby, effectively offering an alternative route into the game to that through private schools. “Had those five lads not gone to Gordon’s and stayed where they were, there’s a very good chance that they wouldn’t be contracted players at Harlequins now,” academy coach Evans believes.

“I know a lot of boys in the programme who wouldn’t be able to come here if they had to pay,” Williamson says. “The programme’s a very good way of getting people here and then helping them just keep going and going because I don’t think they’d be able to do it at a state school that they were at before.

“If you look at our team, there’s a lot of players that might not be in the academy now, if they didn’t come here.”

For Harlequins, the scheme “ticks so many boxes for us,” Evans says. The boys “definitely get a bigger leg up the ladder by having more contact time and more opportunity.

“There is now this additional development tool. No matter where you go to school, you can then potentially go to Gordon’s and continue that development for another two years.”

The concentration of talent at Gordon’s ”drives the group” and raises standards, too.

Throughout the country, 14 state schools now have partnerships with professional teams, similar to that of Harlequins with Gordon’s. Harlequins intend to extend the scheme to a couple of other schools, one each in Surrey and Sussex, increasing the number of boys who can access such a programme within reasonable commuting distance.

Cricket looks to national schemes

This Saturday, 56 boys and girls in year 12 will arrive at England’s national cricket performance centre at Loughborough University. There, the players will have a weekend of high-quality training, together with sessions on strength and conditioning, nutrition and psychology.

The players are all part of the England and Wales Cricket Board’s Diploma in Sporting Excellence; this is funded in partnership with Sport England. Beginning in September 2022, every year the ECB partners with just under 60 players at state schools, who are considered the best outside the first-class academies.

“There is a point here about making sure that we have multiple entry points throughout the pathway, and facilitate even later developers into the game,” Powell, the ECB’s national talent manager, explains. “The thinking here was how can we provide some additional support to the players that are in state schools.” For those without access to private schools, the scheme aims “to try to bridge the gap”.

Where Gordon’s has become a hub for the best state school boys in rugby, cricket’s scheme is more fragmented: the cohort of 56 is across the entire country, with the support more at academy level than in their schools.

“We’re not going to have a school with 10 of them,” Powell observes. “That’s our challenge - how we can scale it. It would be great to have a ‘centralised’ model and a series of state school partners.”

The ECB is currently considering the most effective future path; this could include school partnerships similar to the rugby model. Last September, pilot programmes were launched with South Gloucestershire and Stroud College and Brighton Aldridge Community Academy, with county coaches working closely with cricketers at the school, in a similar way to Gordon’s and Harlequins.

Ostensibly an ideal solution would be one state school hub, like Gordon’s in rugby, in all 39 national or first-class counties, or at least all 18 first-class sides. The problem would be how to fund this.

Some counties are already working to develop versions of such partnerships themselves. Last year Surrey launched their State School Sixth Form Cricket Programme. From September next year, it will have 12 partner schools. The club send coaches to their partner schools with the aim of producing professional players.

“That’s trying to address the imbalance between the state sector and the independent sector,” Chris Taylor, Surrey’s head of talent pathway, says. “We know that the playing field isn’t fair and isn’t level.” As with the link between Harlequins and Gordon’s, there will be a crossover of coaches between school and professional teams. If players can get enough support inside the state system, they should benefit from one particular advantage, as both Powell and Taylor note: having more time to play adult cricket at weekends. Across sport, ‘playing up’ - playing with older children - accelerates skill development.

But for all the importance of better schemes for the most talented athletes in their final school years, both cricket and rugby also recognise the need to broaden their talent pool at earlier ages. Indeed, those involved hope that these initiatives with the cricket and rugby schemes will have an inspirational quality for younger students in the same schools.

To open up the earlier ages of their pathway, last year Surrey changed their system of players being nominated for the academy: instead of having to be nominated by a club or school, now players just send in brief footage of themselves. “We have some amazing videos come through - people in farmers’ fields to back gardens to bowling on campsites to grandma and granddad,” Taylor says.

The issue of early access to the game is particularly important for batsmen in cricket. With height and physique crucial for both bowlers and rugby players, professional careers are more open to those who develop later. But those who do not get enough practice at a relatively young age are unlikely to become professional batsmen; since the World Cup, Ben Stokes is the only man England have picked as a specialist batsman who did not attend independent school.

Under a scheme being piloted at Hampshire, children early in the pathway get extra training and matches if they are at state schools. “How can we bridge the gap of what that offer is that the players are getting?” Powell asks. The ECB also believes that part of the answer could be to start running more regional events at lower ages, reducing the importance of schools in providing players with match and training time.

Private and state schools can thrive together

It is among the many questions that sports are asking about how to increase access. In April, a workshop bringing together different sports will consider the most effective ways to ensure that regional age-group sides are affordable for all players. This is a particular issue for cricket, where kit and coaching is more expensive to provide than rugby. Cricket academies generally charge parents. Eliminating all costs - such as coaching, travel and kit - for each child in such a system is attractive but would have some undesirable effects: each cohort would have to be smaller. One possibility is that those in deprived neighbourhoods could automatically be offered financial support or free kit, without having to ask themselves.

For all the tendency to place the state and independent school sectors in opposition to each other, those developing talent in cricket and rugby alike have a different view. Their concern is simply to maximise the amount of talent that advances to the professional game.

“We have to be committed to both sectors,” Grainger, from the RFU, says. “We want to really grow the inclusion and diversity in rugby. We also need to recognise that some of our more established schools have got incredible rugby facilities, coaching and equipment - and we need to sustain and develop the game there as well.”

The war for talent between leading private schools can be fierce. At Cranleigh, sports scholarships are worth only five per cent off fees, but applying for a scholarship opens up applying for means-tested bursaries. These can extend to covering full fees in some cases, although only relatively rarely: across the independent sector, only one per cent of pupils do not pay anything. “It allows anyone to have access to Cranleigh, which is something I believe in,” Houston says.

While scholarships will benefit only a lucky few, private schools doing more to share their facilities - especially during their extended holidays - represents another potential way to improve access to cricket and rugby. Cranleigh is used as one of the MCC Foundation’s hubs for girls from state schools; Cranleigh’s groundsman also works in a local state school. “We should, morally, open the school up,” Houston says. “We try and open it up as much as we can.”

In sport and beyond, schools such as Cranleigh will continue to thrive. But, for cricket and rugby alike, the long-term health of the game depends upon creating alternative routes to the top.

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