A well-resourced and thriving state school PE department have kickstarted a debate about just how far schools go to achieve success.
The school (they have asked us to spare their blushes by remaining anonymous) were proud of their coaching programme and the progress that many of their students make during the five or seven years spent with them.
But they rarely made it past the county finals of any national competitions (not for the want of trying) and reckoned they knew why.
They named six schools within 40 miles of them – four independent and two state institutions – who they claimed spent huge resources in terms of time and money recruiting players to join them.
This, they claimed, started at junior school level and went right through to sixth form. Not surprisingly, they were frustrated and rather annoyed.
But how big a problem is this – and frankly does it matter? Are sports scholarships a force for good or just a polite term for player poaching?
Rick Orkney, director of sport at Devonport High School for Boys in Plymouth, insists the problem is “huge nationally and indeed locally down here in the city.”
He says: “One local ex-sports college state comprehensive school offers places on various ‘academies’ and the numbers of students who travel there from all over south Devon and east Cornwall are huge.
“However this means that the local children cannot get a look in and rarely play for their school side as their place has been taken by children who travel (often long distances).
“There has also been a knock-on effect for the city as a whole. Whilst this school creams off the top in terms of sporting talent, the other local comps are left short of players and regularly fail to field a side.
“Rugby as a sport has died within the city as has cricket and athletics. Football is not even as strong as it once was. The ex-sports college are too strong to play locally so they themselves are forced to travel vast distances just to find fixtures of a similar standard.
“Whilst serving the needs of a small handful of children the wider knock on effect has been devastating for everyone else.”
“A separate issue has always been our local private school poaching our players at sixth form level.
“We reached the last 16 at the Rossyln Park 7s at U16 age group last year and now cannot raise a first 15. I'm not sure that there is an answer to this one.”
Another director of sport at a thriving independent school, who wished to remain anonymous, maintains player poaching is a rife – despite claims to the contrary.
He said: “We are in an area with a lot of private schools all wanting to attract the best local talent so fighting for the local talent has become for me a major issue.
“Other schools in the area are very aggressive, often going up to players and parents on the sidelines during DPP and elite pathway sessions and demanding that their child leave one school and go to another for the good of the child.
“They say the coaching at XXX school is not as good as the coaching at YYY school, basically misinforming parents and putting pressure on them.
“We have even had staff from other schools come onto our fields and talk to our parents about moving schools.
“It is poaching and we have had some pupils leave our school, not because the school is poor at sport, but simply they have been offered a larger scholarship percentage and move to another school.
“We as a school have now decided that we will offer scholarships. However we will not go out and actively find those students. Should they wish to apply we will consider their application and make an offer that we feel is appropriate.
“Sport should be about what programme your school can run and offer, not what scholarship percentage you can offer.
“Unfortunately it is becoming more and more about the percentage that is being offered to, most of the time, average individuals.”
Over in Essex, Mike McDarby, the 1st XV rugby coach at the Campion School, is proud of how competitive their teams have been over the years. But he is the first to admit he is not competing on a level playing field.
Mike says: “We feel the schoolboy game is becoming more about who recruits the best players rather than who instils the best structures for development.
“There are some schools we will not play as it is widely known they recruit far and wide. We could still compete at our very best, but the odds become heavily stacked against us, no matter how hard we work.
“It’s a bit like a school football team taking on Manchester United’s Academy. What is really the point?
“Over the past few seasons, we have lost some long-standing fixtures with proud rugby schools who feel they cannot compete anymore with schools such as ours. Their staff have told stories about highly successful U16 sides being broken up by the poaching of their best players from local and non-local institutions.
“The knock-on effect of this has been sad to see as the game loses more and more genuinely competitive rugby schools. How is this good for rugby? Surely, the net just becomes ever smaller.”
Feelings are also running high at Aylesbury Grammar School where many of their young rugby players are being poached by other teams.
A strong U16 side of two years ago was picked apart with five Wasps Academy players being headhunted by five different schools.
Gary Ramsbottom, head of rugby at Aylesbury, claimed:” We are suffering heavily. From within the Wasps set-up, the boys are encouraged to look for the highest level of rugby, jeopardising their academic potential, their friendships, their mental health/well-being and for what? How many stay on with contracts from Wasps?
“From this year’s year 11 who got to last 16 of the U15 cup last year, two are being chased with scholarships. It's a shame that students and parents don't have more faith in continuing at their original school and completing the seven-year journey, leaving a lasting positive seven-year legacy.
“With the school offering a decent standard of rugby and excellent A level outcomes, it is a shame they don't value this pathway more. It didn't do Sam Jones of Wasps, Barbarians and England any harm.”
Thankfully it is not all doom and gloom, at least according to Andy Davis, subject leader for PE at Tapton School in Sheffield.
He explained: “I have been a PE teacher for 32 years and throughout I have been heavily involved in school sport, both in Rotherham and Sheffield, where school sport is valued and well recognised.
“I can honestly say that I have never felt there is a problem with player poaching. It is certainly not apparent in Sheffield schools and, as someone who is so involved in most sports in the city, there is a real combination of factors that lead to success – and it certainly isn’t player poaching.
“Sheffield remains a strong city due to a number of reasons and, in recent years, there has been many successes across many sports, without any poaching of pupils. No school dominates across the city and success tends to come in waves.
“Where there is success there are key factors - the support given by local clubs, local facilities, high level coaching outside and great support by many PE teachers across the city.
“Where there is high-level success, this tends to be down to a bit of luck where schools have been fortunate to have a special group in their intake, particularly when there is a need to have a team of four in sports like badminton and cross country.
“On a personal front I do look at the football competitions and wonder how the same schools seem to get to national finals on a regular basis.
“I do get the impression that where schools have the privilege of running their programme for Premier League teams’ education, they are going to feature in much more successful competition.
“The ESFA have tried to counter this with a maximum academy team selection, yet the schools still seem to achieve great success.
“In my 32 years, this doesn’t happen unless there is an element of selection, all boys, girls schools, grammar schools, church schools, independent schools. This certainly has a big boost to success.
“However, those schools in different postcodes may also have greater opportunity, when compared to lower socio economic areas.
“In my second teaching school, it was a great achievement to beat our local rivals once a year. We knew we had no chance but when we did we really enjoyed it.
“The level of competition is so vitally important to get right. If this happens all schools can achieve success.”
Interestingly, Guildford High School appear regularly in the top five in this magazine’s leading independent sports schools – yet they do NOT offer sports scholarships.
Louise Stone, director of sport, recognizes their worth but does not think they are necessary at her school.
She explains: “To offer the opportunity of a first class education, academic and sporting, to talented girls who might benefit from financial support would allow the school to offer something back to the community in which it operates.
“It can also inspire young, talented girls to take their sport seriously and ensure talented pupils feel valued by the school in their chosen sport.
“As a school that currently has a large number of girls representing their country or performing to national level in sport, it may seem strange that we do not act in accordance with these ideals. But the answer lies very firmly in the aspect of fairness.
“How can a school with 100 entrants in year 7 possibly distinguish between an outstanding games player, swimmer, gymnast, athlete, tennis player, fencer or rower for example?
“Having helped on the selection board for other schools, I have faced this problem first hand and not enjoyed the decision-making entailed.
“When a child enters year 7, they still have several years of puberty and physical maturity ahead of them. How can one be sure that a scholar will continue to perform at the top of their game, staying ahead of their peers who may be later developers?
“Or perhaps they suffer a long-term injury? Do you then take their scholarship away because they are not as successful as you (or they) anticipated?
“Over the years, we have had the luxury of girls coming to GHS despite having been offered sports scholarships elsewhere, but equally, I suspect we have ‘missed’ some and there have certainly been a few that moved on, going to other schools in year 9 or sixth form, due to the lures of financial reward.
“On one occasion, a pupil was actively scouted after a national swimming gala and offered a scholarship her parents felt they could not refuse, which was a shame. Unfortunately, we are a charity-based independent day school, without the funds to compete in these situations.
“To my mind, the most important thing is to make sure we do inspire our young talent, recognise their achievements and ensure they receive a first class education, making the absence of sports scholarships an inconsequential feature.
“However, if Guildford High School were to be persuaded to go down that route, I would certainly make sure we only offered scholarships to pupils already at the school, once their commitment, dedication and performance levels have been proved.”
Sports scholarships – a force for good or simply player poaching