Mossbourne Academy- Building for the Future

A highly successful academy in the East London Borough of Hackney are set to become the first state school to allocate additional spaces in year nine based on a pupil’s potential to become an elite rower. In a move that has sparked some controversy among educational bodies, Mossbourne Academy are offering ten additional spaces to thirteen year olds based on physical attributes, including height and arm span.

The decision is driven by a desire from Mossbourne to become one of the first state schools to be able to compete with the likes of Eton College in a sport ruled by the private sector. “For us, it was about doing something different from the standard football and rugby” said Principal Peter Hughes. “We initially introduced rowing as part of PE before realizing that there was a huge gap for expansion”.

Hughes also pointed to the initiatives within British Rowing at addressing the stereo-type. “Rowing is archaic in the sense that it is still dominated by the private schools but the perception is shifting. You don’t have to be wealthy to row and, as a school, we are looking to address these socio-economic barriers to give the next generation of children a shot at becoming international standard rowers”.

Organisations such as London Youth Rowing have been key in driving the project forward and Matthew Paul, head of rowing at Mossbourne Academy, pointed to the school as an ideal base for ‘individual athlete development’. “The top athletes in our program train up to thirteen times a week and the school are very engaged with individual development. We’ve had some really promising results already this season and we also have one of our athletes attending a Great Britain training day at Caversham this weekend so we’re definitely moving in the right direction.”

“For us, it is clear that the discipline gained by combining intensive sport with rigorous academic study is a fundamental reason for why we believe a school is the perfect base for an elite training regime”.

Paul, who is paid by London Youth Rowing to provide a professional coaching service at Mossbourne, was a top level rower himself, having won the British Championships as a lightweight. During his tenure at Mossbourne, he’s overseen a Henley campaign along with representation at the National Schools’ Regatta. “Initially, we competed as Lea Rowing Club and qualified for the Fawley Challenge Cup in 2012 but we really needed to race under our own banner. The squad was re-homed at the Royal Docks for water sessions while land based activities are completed at the school. We are looking to build larger squads and the selection criteria for year nine will be critical to that. We’d love to take the top schools on in the eights category at Henley but naturally you’re going to need a competitive squad of greater depth”.

The project has caused some controversy among parents and governors, some of whom have criticised Mossbourne of ‘cherry-picking’ while concerns have been raised over the effect such a training program will have on academic study. However the response from Mossbourne’s principal was clear. “If you want something done, give it to a busy person!” said Hughes before pointing out previous rowers from the school who have gained full scholarships to the USA. “Applications to the top universities are becoming more competitive each year and it is clear that diversity is valued at the highest institutions, particularly in the US.”

“We are trying to put ourselves on an even footing with the private schools, there’s no disputing that, but we are focused on our pupils reaching their full potential; this is a project for the long haul and we’re committed to providing opportunities for our pupils that equal the private sector”.

There is certainly evidence to suggest that Mossbourne can achieve a high level of success in the sport of rowing. Sir William Borlase Grammar School, a state school, have won the Fawley Challenge Cup at Henley Royal Regatta twice in the past three years, which gives the athletes and coaches at Mossbourne a real incentive to work towards. “We’ve had some really promising results of late” said Paul when asked about how similar the two schools are in terms of their projects. “Obviously Robin Dowell runs an incredible system down there but we’re looking to develop right from the bottom so it is going to take time. I’d like a Great Britain vest within the next two years ideally; that would really send out a signal of intent. However we have got to be very careful of admissions criteria and codes and we need to ensure we’re building within academically approved parameters”.

The admissions code for state schools dictates that a school is permitted to ‘select’ 10% of their intake based on a variety of factors, including sport. “The admissions criteria policy is very tight and so we’re simply working within our parameters to improve the opportunities available to school-kids of that age” added Hughes.

My Comment

Mossbourne are believed to be the first state school to openly select pupils in this way and there has been some rumblings through the week about the potential consequences. In my opinion, the advantages for such a scheme far outweigh any negatives. Great Britain are renowned for their prowess on the international rowing circuit and recently won two gold medals and two silvers in the heavyweight men’s sweep team at the World Championships. However, we need to start looking towards the future and, although schemes such as GB Start are undoubtedly invaluable, there isn’t enough on the junior scene. The junior team’s results, on the international stage, aren’t comparable to the senior squad but Mossbourne have got exactly the right idea for providing the next generation of top international rowers.

In addition to this, the perception of rowing as an elitist, Pimms drinking, private school attending, blazer wearing sport is becoming less and less fashionable. This isn’t a bash at the private schools because their investment and dedication to the sport is a huge part of what drives it forward. However, more and more state schools are emerging as rowing power-houses and, with this project in mind, Mossbourne will likely be among the next. This can only be positive for the junior rowing community as increased competition will subsequently increase the standard of rowing.

I am the editor of a rapidly growing blog based around the junior rowing circuit within the UK. From launch in June 2013, the website has experienced vast growth in both its reader count and view count while the article range has expanded. I currently work with a team of 10 people, all of whom voluntarily write articles for the blog. In our first year, I looked to expand from the standard previews and reviews that had gained initial success to building relationships with clubs and conducting interviews. This move proved successful and we are currently exploring new routes to further improve our platform. The blog has led to involvement with Regatta Radio, Rowing & Regatta, Row 360 and British Rowing.