Fantastic and inspiring initiative from Saracens Rugby

17.09.2018 12:07

Diversifying! The High Street diversifying to survive, Google diversifying because they can, Amazon diversifying to dominate! Wouldn't it be refreshing to come across an organisation diversifying in order to improve the lives of communities. Well that is exactly what the Saracens Rugby Club has done with the launch of their school. Here is a recent article from The Telegraph that illustrates what organisations and individuals can do if they have the desire and the willpower. 

In his 23 years of owning Saracens, Nigel Wray has signed countless superstars, moved stadiums and filled several cabinets with trophies. This week, however, marked the start of his most exciting project yet. 

On Thursday morning 156 children walked through the doors of Saracens High School in Colindale, one of the most deprived communities within the borough of Barnet. This is not an academy or another form of rugby pipeline, but an actual bricks and mortar secondary school, the first launched by a professional sports club in the UK. 

A further 156 Year 7 pupils will enrol next year and then 180 in 2020 when they move to a new facility, which eventually will host 1130 students. Barnet Council have indicated that they would like Saracens to eventually run several schools taking up to 3,500 children. 

“It started having a life of its own and then suddenly you are there and thinking ‘Oh my God, we have to do it now,” Wray told The Daily Telegraph.

“I am a middle class child myself so I don’t mind if it is good middle class kids getting a good education but that’s not the object. The goal is to give children from a deprived neighbourhood a better opportunity founded in part on the values of that we try to live up to here: honesty, humility, hard work, discipline.”

The idea first occurred to Gordon Banks, Saracens’ chief community officer, around the time that then-Prime Minister David Cameron launched his Free Schools initiative. He sent an email to the club hierarchy, the proposal was briefly discussed and then quietly forgotten until Wray came back to him a couple of years later asking two questions: is this needed and is it feasible? 

What Banks found was that there was a desperate lack of secondary schools in the borough of Barnet. In Colindale, which is less than a mile and a half away from Saracens’ home of Allianz Park, children were having to take two or three buses to attend schools in Edgware or Hendon.

It is also an area blighted by crime. Last year two members of a gang operating out of Grahame Park Estate, directly opposite the school, were jailed for life for murdering a teenager with a ‘Rambo-style knife’. 

“It is an area of high social deprivation,” Banks said. “The Grahame Park Estate has been a really troubled community through the 1980s and 1990s. You don’t walk through the Concourse at night, even now. There’s a fair amount of gang activity. There are a lot of challenges, yet in our experience we have found families who are really aspirational and who really value education, but have nothing on their doorstep in terms of secondary schools.”

Consultations with Barnet Council, the Department of Education and local primary schools all returned a green light. “I spoke to Nigel and the others at length to say ‘guys we all need to be really aware of what we are getting into here. People’s lives and futures are on the line here’,” Banks said.

We are very aware that there is no greater responsibility than educating children.” So what business does a rugby club have in running a school? For Wray, the core values of honesty, discipline, work rate and humility that Brendan Venter introduced to Saracens in 2009 apply just as much to a school or a business as they do to a rugby club.

Will Fraser, who played in Saracens 2016 double-winning side before retiring the following year, now leads The Saracens Way and explained to the school’s teachers how these principles can be introduced to organisations as varied as a FTSE listed company to Feltham Young Offenders Institution.

Over the course of a couple of hours, the teachers were left to create their own behaviours to match the values. Examples included treating everybody with the same respect, from the dinner ladies to the principal - under humility -  and being brave enough to ask for help - under honesty.

These are the principles around which the school will run.  The next task for Wray was to select the principal. “One of the main things I have learnt in business is that the fish stinks from the head,” Wray said.

“With a school, you have to get the headmaster right. It is the same philosophy as choosing a coach. You can have the best players in the world, but if the coach cannot relate to them then he cannot the best out of them.”

He chose Matthew Stevens, a former sports psychologist for Watford Football Club who has worked in schools in some of the most deprived parts of London. He also possesses next to no interest in rugby.

However, the values that Saracens intended to instill fully resonated with his own experiences in secondary education.  “A lot of schools don’t start with the culture or character of the students, but are very focused on the exam results,” Stevens said.

I understand that pressure. We have got the opportunity because we are starting afresh of being able to focus on the culture. If we get those parts right we will not need to worry about exam results because our wonderful children and our wonderful staff will have high aspirations, will be driven to work hard and will achieve. It is a really unique opportunity.”

Stevens in turn recruited his teachers on the basis of how well they understood the values rather than the length of their CVs. His passion is infectious and his belief in the potential of the project absolute, although he is at pains to say they are not under instructions to unearth the next Maro Itoje

“It would be nice if one of them became a professional rugby player but that’s not the goal,” Stevens said. “We want children to aspire but they are not all going to be Premiership rugby players. How do you encourage an aspiration which is an achievable one? They can’t all be dancers, sports professionals or singers. How do they see other routes? We want children from here to be able to compete in every field and believe they can compete with anybody.”It is easy to be cynical about Saracens’ intentions, particularly at a time in which Nike are attempting to appropriate social activism for the purpose of selling more trainers. Yet as Banks says, “if we wanted to sell more season tickets we would not be going to Grahame Park estate. We would be opening a school in Hampstead.”

There is always a balance between altruistic and commercial intentions, but when so many clubs talk earnestly of engaging with their community it is hard to fault Saracens for taking that to the next level.

“We have been nomadic,” Banks said. “We want to embed true roots in this community and this is one way in which we can try to do that and make a real difference. It does not matter whether they come to watch the club as long as people here think that Saracens are a force for good. We want them to be proud of the club, but that is something that can only be earned.”

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