Rugby free school aims to tackle the disengaged
First there were free schools backed by some of the country's top football clubs. Now it seems that rugby is to muscle in on the action, with one of England's most historic sides, Leicester Tigers, in talks to support a free-school bid.
An application to open the Leicester Academy of Sports was submitted last month. The school would provide high-quality sports coaching for 16- to 19-year-olds with a focus, initially at least, on rugby union.
If successful, it will be one of the first FE colleges in the country to open as a free school, and the only school with the backing of a professional rugby club.
Matthew Pinches, who is leading the group behind the application, said that the college will offer the people of Leicester much-needed post-16 vocational education. It will focus on technical qualifications in sports science, while also offering students some of the best coaching in the country.
"We want to use sport to engage young people who have an aptitude for sport, but who have fallen out of their chosen discipline for whatever reason," Mr Pinches said. "We have found that there are lots of kids who are very good at rugby, but are missing out in developing their game because they come from more disadvantaged backgrounds."
According to the former FE college principal, the academy will select students on the basis of some sporting ability. He added that it will eventually offer a range of sports, with talks taking place about Leicester City Football Club becoming involved.
Unlike football, most of rugby union's players take A levels and many continue playing while at university. But the Leicester Tigers - which has five players in the England squad that will play France this Sunday - is aware that it is missing out on a number of potential players from more disadvantaged backgrounds who have fallen out of traditional education.
Scott Clarke, the club's head of community, said Leicester Tigers had a number of outreach programmes that worked with schools and colleges, and added that the side was only too happy to support the free-school bid.
"There is a discipline in this game that can do a lot for young people's character," Mr Clarke said. "You may batter each other on the pitch, but there is a respect. There's no diving and rolling about. There is, however, an ethos that working hard gets you results. And we try to bring that to our work in schools."
The Youth Sport Trust (YST) advocates using sport to help re-engage young people with education, and it has backed the college's attempt to appeal to harder-to-reach students. YST chief executive John Steele said sport was a powerful tool to help young people achieve good results across a range of subjects. "We see on a regular basis that, when sport is delivered well, it can transform the lives of a whole range of pupils - from supporting those with a talent to achieve their best and developing leaders of the future, through to engaging those who may be at risk of dropping out of school life completely," he said.
The college is also in talks with Matt Hampson, a former Leicester Tigers player, to be an ambassador.
Mr Hampson's career was tragically cut short in 2005 when a scrum collapsed while he was training with the England under-21 team. The young player suffered a broken neck and was left paralysed from the chest down. He is unable to breathe without the aid of a ventilator.
It is hoped that Mr Hampson will be able to advise on the college's offering to students with disabilities. Discussions are also taking place about naming the college after him.
The Department for Education said it was open to a wide variety of free-school applications. "The free-schools programme is about stimulating the sort of innovative, imaginative projects that would never have seen the light of day otherwise. We look forward to looking at this proposal in detail," a DfE spokesperson said.
The big picture
1 rugby free-school bid has been made
337 applications for free schools to open in 2013 have been submitted via the New Schools Network
43% of these are located in London and the South East
24 free schools are currently open
79 have been approved to open in September 2012.