After my last post about whether rowing is elitist, a lovely woman called Rachel got in touch to tell me about the Herculean efforts that she and a bunch of other parents and grandparents have been putting in to give their kids a chance to row at the state school they attend. I was so moved by her story that, with Rachel’s permission, I have decided to share it with you. Over to you, Rachel:
“Just over a year ago I sat in a school classroom alongside a small group of parents and children listening to three times World Champion, Peter Haining, talking about rowing. He’d been introduced by Zena, one of the other mums. She’d started rowing a few years before, loved it and wanted her children to enjoy it too, but she’d noticed that the children she came across at races were almost entirely from public schools. And hers weren’t… in fact her children, mine, and all the others were in a classroom at Cheney Secondary School in East Oxford. Zena not only wanted her own children to discover the joys of rowing, but for all the children at the school, regardless of background, to have the same opportunity. Cheney is an inner-city school, its catchment area the terrace streets and housing estates in the east of the city, within sight but, in many ways, far from the dreaming spires.
“Peter is quite a character, he regaled us with tales of his rowing exploits, photographs of him on a mountain holding a boat aloft in fulfillment of a bet, and told us of his ambition for our children – this was not going to be any rowing club, but an Olympic Rowing club. We were captivated. We weren’t just going to aim to win a few local races against other state schools, we were aiming for the top. For those parents who’ve been through the state primary system, this ambition and outright competitiveness was new. Cheney’s fantastic PE department had been a breath of fresh air, a Head of PE who talked about a pupil’s competitive nature as something good and positive – a crucial factor for success, and now Peter and his ambitions….. there was a palpable sense of excitement.
“This was also to be a real collaboration of parents, school and community. A local rowing and canoeing club just downriver from the Oxford college boathouses, Falcon RCC would host us, giving us free use of their facilities, equipment, and safety support; parents, teachers and volunteers from the local community trained as coaches for indoor rowing on erg machines, and for the outdoor sessions – British Rowing have been impressed at how much volunteer commitment we’ve had. One of the most active volunteers is Zena’s 74-year old father, John, a former rower himself who ran yoga sessions for self-conscious teenagers, dressed up as Santa at Christmas, and learned how to design a website so he could help publicise the club and get funding.
“After running a few Learn to Row sessions over the summer the Club started properly in September 2011. Zena had been busy fundraising and succeeded in getting £10k lottery funding and much appreciated grants from the Waterways Trust, Oxford Sports Council and Doris Field Charitable Trust. We got our ‘Club Mark’ and registered with British Rowing. Mark Hunter, Beijing Gold medalist and London Olympic hopeful came along to a training session, inspiring the pupils with the story of his journey from a state comp to international athlete, and showed his gold medal to our own Olympic dreamers as they jostled to meet a real Olympian. We were on a roll.
“More than 50 children trialled for the first 25 places, and as the weather worsened into winter the children just kept coming along. The worse the conditions, the tighter the team got as they huddled round post-training cups of hot chocolate. They capsized and made mistakes, but slowly their technique improved, they gained confidence, had a few informal races against a local public school and then entered their first competition – the Monmouth Christmas Head.
“And that’s when some of the differences money makes started to be apparent – the school minibuses with trailers loaded with multiple boats – oops, we just had one borrowed old wooden one for all four crews to share. This necessitated some quick turnarounds with crew and parents pitching in – novices on and off the water. Last month some children from Falcon got a chance to have a session on Dorney Lake at Eton, and they entered an Aladdin’s cave of shiny new boats, equipment, order… even heating… as the rowers shivered thinking of Falcon’s picturesque but draughty wooden boathouse. “I want that” my son told me, eyes wide with the possibility of sleek boats, the latest equipment, and warm hands and feet after training.
“Fast forward to Saturday 5th April 2012, as the children came off the water their coach, Lorna, instructed them to watch the Boat Race in preparation for a forthcoming race. Not quite the preparation she had anticipated, I imagine: anti-elitism protests, clashing of blades, and the collapse of the Oxford bow. My son veered from intense anger at the protestor, to intense concern for Alex Woods. He’s only just started rowing, but he can imagine the years of training the athletes undertook, their fear at almost injuring a swimmer, and Oxford’s disappointment at the outcome. Without doubt we deplore the actions of Trenton Oldfield. His means of protest was dangerous for everyone and disrupted a remarkable event. But the question of whether rowing is elitist niggled.
“Rowing is ingrained in the British class and public education system, but for the past 10 years efforts have been made to expand rowing into state schools with some success and support from state-educated advocates such as national treasure Sir Steve Redgrave.There are some state schools that have very successful rowing clubs, such as Monmouth Comprehensive (and I suspect we could learn a lot from them). With more than 3400 state secondary schools in the UK the few that have successfully developed rowing clubs are in the minority, although they are frequently used as examples of how rowing is no longer elitist – maybe less so than in the past, perhaps, but there are still some very real barriers to wider participation, and setting up a school club, as we are finding, can be hugely expensive, even if it is a school-community collaboration with an existing club.
“Last year one of the children told me, “I used to see all these rowers out there when I crossed the river on my way to school; I never thought a kid like me could do something like this.” The crucial change for him was in his self-perception – the belief that something he had previously considered closed to him, was within reach and that all he needed to take part was interest and ability. For all of Trenton Oldfield’s protests against elitism, bringing more children from diverse backgrounds into sports like rowing may be a far more revolutionary move in terms of social change, because social change only happens when people’s perceptions of their place and potential in this world changes too. That’s not to say that there aren’t external barriers, but taking away the barriers without changing our self-perception isn’t enough. I hope in future we’ll have more Olympians who started their rowing careers in state schools because the sport will be poorer for primarily drawing talent from the minority of children educated in public schools. Think of all those great Olympians we never had.
“Although state school children can join local rowing clubs which are theoretically open to all, my experience of trying to get my son a place at one is of unanswered emails, long waiting lists, high membership fees and some clubs only take experienced juniors (yes, really!). My two nearest clubs charge £160-180 for an annual junior membership and I pay £10 a week for coaching on top of that – partly because their own costs are so high. This works out about 10 times what I pay in costs for my son’s participation in his football team.
“The beauty of a state school rowing club is that it starts from the premise of access for all. The majority of children now rowing at Cheney would not have joined a local club, they got into rowing because it came to them at school. State school children are not a homogenous group, some families take a couple of foreign holidays a year and others live on very low incomes supplemented with parcels from food banks, there are children in care, refugees and asylum seekers. A few of our rowers pay for additional membership at a local club, but the majority only row with the school and there are some talented athletes for whom participation is only possible because it is at zero cost to them. They would never be able to afford to join a rowing club, but they can be active and equal members of the school club. The school knows their situation and automatically their costs are covered, discreetly, no need to make a special case, ask for a discount or show documentary evidence.
“However much my son was awed at the Eton boathouse, it would be cheap shot to juxtapose an image of the Falcon ‘hut’ alongside the premier rowing venue in the country. Our school club doesn’t need Eton-style facilities – but we do need the basics: access to decent boats suitable for juniors, equipment such as shoes in the right sizes, funds to repair and maintain the second hand ergometers, adequate safety equipment, and coaching. Our budget contains essentials and ‘nice to have’ items. Safety equipment is essential; a summer coaching course for the most able rowers will probably have to be dropped. And the boat issue won’t go away – with more training, experience and better technique we can do better, but there will be a point where quality of boats will make a difference. We were pleased with our performance at Monmouth, but it was like racing a tugboat against yachts.
“Getting funding is laborious and time-consuming, especially when we reply on parent volunteers doing it is their spare time after a long day at work and a long evening on domestic chores. And I am that parent volunteer – struggling to find the time to investigate the various funds, schemes and sources, make the applications, put together the supplementary materials, supporting letters from the Governing Body and so on. Days spent preparing funding applications have spawned nothing but rejections so far– all funds, it would seem, have already been allocated for the foreseeable future. Most requests were for a few hundred to a thousand pounds, but they all require quite a lot of work, and we’d need multiple small grants to cover basic costs. I’ve still four applications to fill in or hear back from, though, so my fingers are still crossed. Just about.
“Even if all of them are successful, though, we will still be short of what we need. And that’s the rub, rowing is expensive, doing it properly, being ambitious, even more so. In a state school that wants to offer opportunities to all children regardless of income, subs can only be a partial contribution – we can count for about 10% of our budget from subs, and there are no wealthy benefactors, rich parents or illustrious alumni to draw on. Corporate sponsorship of a state school rowing team is a limited option, although if we do get a boat at some point we’d happily have a logo on it if we can find a company desirous of the prestige of sponsoring us.
“But we’ve had our successes too. Some rowers enjoy it for the health and fitness aspects, they don’t want to compete and love being out on the water, working as a team, the beauty of the river early morning, the wildlife on the banks, the sense of freedom. Others do want to compete, and they’ve already had some great successes in indoor rowing, winning a competition for Oxfordshire schools just months after setting the club up, and some strong positions in the competitive national schools indoor rowing competition last month. Indoor rowing, of course, is a lot cheaper than on the water because you don’t need the boats. As the regatta season starts we’ll be entering teams, our wonderful coaches have been running free extra sessions, and parents and volunteers will all pitch in to rig and de-rig our borrowed old wooden boat, and we’ll do our best to show that state schools have talent aplenty too.
“But I do worry, come September with the coffers empty, will that be the end of our Olympic dreams? We let our children fall in love with rowing, but are we being too ambitious – is it simply not possible for a state school to run a rowing club, should we just give up and accept that it’s too expensive a sport for us to compete in?
“To the boy who said that he never thought children like him could do something like this, all I can say is – I hope you can, but without a miracle, you might just be right.”
Thanks so much for this, Rachel; it gives us all plenty to think about.