It was inevitable. In a culture so risk averse, it is perhaps only surprising that it took so long for Rugby to come under attack from the safety politburo. Recent publicity has highlighted the danger of the game to children, frequency of injury (claimed to be 18%), risk of concussion and catastrophe. The impact of this will surely be felt in schools, and compulsory rugby will come further under attack.
What is the answer? Fewer schools will maintain their appetite to challenge parental demand, and more "exceptions" will be made to the previously inviolate requirement for all pupils to experience the game. Is it inevitable that compulsory rugby will disappear, after a primacy of position in British Independent schools which has gone relatively unchallenged for nearly 150 years?
Perhaps rugby should not be compulsory. Certainly, making everyone play so that the school team is as strong as possible, and there are no attractive alternatives is scant justification for the status quo. And, clearly, many schools have hidden some pretty shabby provision behind the wall of compulsion - especially for the less able players - for much of that 150 years. Many middle aged men recall an unattractive experience of the game in school: on wet, windswept fields at the hands of sadistic bullies who seemed to feel that unpleasantness and pain were an essential educational experience.
So, why should rugby be compulsory ? For the benefit of boys, or for the organisational expedient of the school competitive programme? There are certainly many benefits claimed for the game in schools. But most of them are only potential advantages. Little attention or accountability is attached to whether they are actually delivered.
What can rugby contribute? Why is it so valuable that it still commands 400 or more compulsory minutes every week in many boarding schools? More than professional teams spend on on-field practice! At its best rugby can offer unique experiences. The challenge of facing fear, and the fundamental human satisfaction of overcoming this and feeling better equipped to face future adversity. The tolerance of discomfort in an environment requiring self-control. The demand for selflessness in promoting team goals. Exquisite moments of magic remembered for a lifetime. The satisfaction of applying effort and overcoming apprehension.
These benefits are not ability dependent. They are potentially available to all children, regardless of size, ability or confidence. That is the justification for all pupils to experience the game, though the challenge of how this is delivered to lower ability pupils is indisputably significant. During Tom Brown's Schooldays these experiences were not confined to the playing fields. However, the sedentary, carefully protected world of Twenty First Century children, these opportunities and requirements are rare. And therefore more valuable.
However, these are only potential benefits. Without carefully thought out delivery, and a realistic attempt to measure impact and outcomes, it is possible that the game can be an experience of valueless discomfort. Popular pressure to justify the place of the game in schools may be inconvenient, but may not be a bad thing, ultimately. School websites routinely refer to rugby programmes and their organisational details. Rarely do they present a rationale for their existence.
If new pressures make it necessary for the game to become market led, and present itself in such an appealing way as to be irresistible to (almost) all pupils, then perhaps they are to be welcomed. The delivery of desirable personal qualities through participation in rugby cannot be assumed. Carefully created and imaginative, measurable, school-wide policies will be necessary to achieve this as never before.
The benefits that rugby can potentially provide have never been more important to children. Schools have the opportunity to revise, refine and redefine the delivery and objectives of their programmes. The game could bring enjoyment, satisfaction and personal development to future generations of children. Or schools can do the easy thing. And make it optional.
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