An academy school in Hackney has just taken the – apparently – controversial step of offering a small number of selective places to year nine children with an aptitude for rowing. It is believed to be the first state school in Britain to use rowing as a selection criterion. The school’s principal wants Mossbourne Community Academy to become the first state school to field a winning rowing crew at the Henley regatta.
It is quite legal for schools in England to select up to ten per cent of their pupils on the basis of aptitude for things like music and sport, rather than for academic potential. With the plethora of what used to be state schools now outside direct local authority control, such as academies and free schools, around three-quarters of schools may now select their pupils.
Parents in Hackney, say media reports, are up in arms because the oversubscribed and successful Mossbourne school is now cherry-picking pupils; by having to demonstrate that a child has the determination to succeed on a demanding sports programme alongside taking GCSEs, selection for rowing aptitude is in fact a proxy for likely academic success, they say.
Nonsense, counters principal Peter Hughes: ‘Children would be selected for the rowing places with the help of Mossbourne’s professional rowing coach using externally devised criteria for measuring aptitude in the sport and not on any other measures’. There is also controversy about year nine selection, because Mossbourne may ‘poach’ children away from other schools in the area. It is of course more usual to take children at year seven, or at sixth-form entry.
An elitist prejudice?
But is there something darker going on in all the apparent outrage? Is it because this is about rowing, seen as an elitist, private school sport and most famously popular at Oxford and Cambridge? If it were about aptitude for football, or even cricket, would there be such a fuss?
Peter Hughes is quite open about the fact that he is taking on independent schools on their own ground: ‘We’re obviously looking at what the elite private schools are doing and doing our best to replicate that. We want our students to have the same opportunities.’ What he aims at is success for his students. ‘Our longer term plan is we have pupils who maybe would not have thought they could go on into higher education who could get a free education through a rowing scholarship in the United States.’
What is wrong with pulling this demanding, technical and exciting sport into the sphere of state schools? It is not a cheap sport, and you need expensive boats – and a nearby stretch of water – to offer it as an option. But it is one of the few sports in which Britain has been consistently successful, and surely more children should get the chance to have a go as teenagers, rather than waiting to see if their university has a team?
If the school achieves its aim, Peter Hughes says, ‘Imagine somebody coming from a Hackney council estate and then rowing for a University of Michigan crew’. More power to their oar, I say.