As Oxford and Cambridge prepare for the Boat Race on Sunday, a London rowing club is seeking to shake off the sport’s elitist image by working with state schools from one of London’s inner city boroughs.

The Fulham Reach Boat Club, the first built in half a century on the stretch of the Thames that stages the annual varsity extravaganza, has started to teach competitive rowing to 13 and 14-year old boys and girls from five state schools in Hammersmith and Fulham.

The club, established as part of the planning conditions of a £1bn luxury housing scheme developed by Berkeley Homes, has won financial backing from bookmakers Betfair and one of the City of London livery companies.

“There is no reason why in 10 years’ time children from schools like this one cannot be competing with Eton, Radley and Shrewsbury,” says David FitzHerbert, the boat club chairman, as boys from Burlington Danes Academy, a school with 70 per cent of children on free school meals, prepare for a lesson on the river.

Abdullahi Dahir, a 13-year-old whose parents arrived as refugees from war-torn Somalia, says he already feels the benefits. “You have to listen, and think about other people in the boat and listen to the cox,” he says enthusiastically.

David Searle, chief executive of the Boat Race Company which organises the most famous event in global rowing, says the project could provide a model for increasing participation at a time when social mobility is high on the political agenda.

The objective is to increase the talent pool available to British rowing by addressing the massive over-representation of privately educated athletes.

Independent schools educate just 7 per cent of the UK’s school children. But among Great Britain’s elite rowers at the 2012 London Olympics, 54 per cent were from independents. Those from the state system almost exclusively learnt at clubs rather than at school.

Of the 550 organisations that make up the membership of British Rowing, there are 105 schools registered — but of those just 12 are state institutions.

The barriers to participation remain considerable. Mr FitzHerbert says running costs are about £100,000 a year, a quarter of which he expects the schools to finance — “to concentrate minds, and as a reminder that this isn’t something for nothing”.

There are heads [of state schools] who recognise that rowers tend to be higher achievers. Public schools have been using this as part of their promotional literature for years

- Andy Parkinson, British Rowing

One issue is the equipment, with the “fours” used by Abdullahi and his school friends each costing £20,000.

Rowing tends to be coaching intensive — from a skills and safety point of view. Only a limited number of schools have access to a river suitable for rowing.

And not every school has the luxury of a brand new boat house.

Great Marlow School has to leave its boats “on a rack in a muddy field”, says Fergus Murison, a former JPMorgan banker who now teaches maths and is head of rowing at the Buckinghamshire secondary school once attended by Sir Steve Redgrave, Britain’s most famous oarsman.

Educationalists say there is growing evidence that competitive activities such as rowing can have a positive impact on academic attainment.

Andy Parkinson, chief executive of British Rowing, the sport’s governing body, says: “There are heads [of state schools] who recognise that rowers tend to be higher achievers. Public schools have been using this as part of their promotional literature for years.”

A 2014 report by Ofsted, the schools regulator, says: “The proportion of students achieving five or more GCSEs grades A* to C including English and mathematics was also higher in schools with stronger competitive sport.”

Sir Michael Wilshaw, head of Ofsted, says: “The best state schools recognise the wider benefits of participation in competitive sport in building a strong ethos and helping children to develop into well-rounded and successful individuals. As a result, attainment across these schools tends to be high.”

Mr Murison, who set up the Great Marlow School boat club in 2008, concurs: “Those in the rowing squad do better academically than the school at large. That seems clear. A good work out before exams improves the linkages in your brain”.

Written by John Murray Brown

(Financial Times)

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