How to keep school from being lost in the scrum

14th September 2012 at 01:00
Education officer will help full backs with their fallback plans

They are, on average, 15 or 16 stone and all over 6ft tall. They could bench-press the weight of a small car and, when on the rugby field, are used to knocking seven bells out of anyone put in front of them. But at just 17 and 18 years of age, they are technically schoolboys and so someone has to tell them to do their homework.

That man is Keith Gee. The former sixth-form teacher has just been appointed by the Rugby Football Union as England Rugby's first full-time elite education officer, with the task of telling some of the biggest pupils in the country to concentrate on their schoolwork.

His appointment comes at a time when the national debate, thanks mainly to this summer's Olympic Games in London, is focused on the importance of competitive school sport and getting the balance between schoolwork and sport right.

Mr Gee believes the Olympics have demonstrated that education and sport should go hand in hand. "When (Olympic gold medal rowers) Katherine Grainger and Anna Watkins were interviewed after winning their gold, they both said they were going to return to finishing their PhDs," he says. "It shows that education is there in sport, and so it should be."

The young rugby stars under Mr Gee's stewardship are at the pinnacle of their sport for their age, and because of their exceptional talents their school lives are dominated by their sport.

It is because of this that Mr Gee, who recently retired from his teaching role at St Brendan's Sixth Form College in Bristol, has been handed the job of making sure the players focus on their school books as much as they do on their rugby.

"Rugby used to be a contact sport, but it's now a collision sport," Mr Gee says. "There is a very high chance of getting an injury and so it is vitally important that the players have plans that work alongside their rugby, be it university or college, in case their rugby doesn't work out."

In comparison to football, rugby only relatively recently became a professional sport, so making a career out of playing the game is something players and coaches are only just getting to grips with. But whereas football has been slow to provide its young players with a fallback plan if their careers on the pitch come to a premature end, rugby has always viewed education as an essential requirement.

"Education has always been seen as part of the game," Mr Gee says. "It probably stems from when the game was still an amateur sport. At my old club, Bristol, (former England full back) Jonathan Webb used to carry out his work as a surgeon before playing on a Saturday."

The teenage players meet up at training camps during each school holiday before setting off for a tour in the southern hemisphere every summer. "They train every day at home and are all signed up to their local clubs, but they know if we get any complaints from their schools or colleges they will not be allowed to come on our camps," Mr Gee says. "That is a requirement we give them right from the start when they come on our elite players programme."

The importance of their school and college work is repeated constantly, and each player is given a wall chart that highlights important dates such as exams, coursework deadlines and Ucas application deadlines.

"The boys have one-to-one tuition with me, and I make sure they understand their courses, whether they be A levels, BTECs or the International Baccalaureate," Mr Gee says.

The fact that rugby is a sport played predominantly by the middle classes, who tend to put a great deal of emphasis on education, undoubtedly helps Mr Gee in his task. However, he is quick to dismiss the idea that the game is dominated by public school boys. "Less than 50 per cent of the elite playing squad go to public schools," he says. "It is so important that participants in any sport realise that their time in sport is so short, and that is why continuing with their education is so essential."

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