Sir John Townsley, Executive Principal, TGAT

We spoke to Sir John Townsley, Executive Principal of The Gorse Academies Trust, about the ground-breaking programme his schools have embarked on with RowUK.

 

“The only time in my 30 year career that, during a speech, I’ve been interrupted with a voluntary standing ovation and a round of applause, was when I spoke about our rowing programme at prizegiving this year.

 

We hadn’t thought about rowing until Ben at RowUK came to speak to us. We had just opened a school in Leeds City Centre. With the compact space available, we were never going to be in a position to have large fields for traditionally dominant sports like rugby, hockey and cricket. We needed to be creative and selected volleyball and martial arts as two of our three core sports. What got me about rowing was coming to an understanding about how elitist the sport actually is, with very few people at a representative level coming from lives characterised by deprivation. We thought we could play a part in changing that. I had no idea how big rowing would be and how it would catch the imagination of our students and their parents.

 

Rowing is like going to a Buckingham Palace garden

party; it gives you a taste of what other people take for granted. And that’s what our children have now got.

Our children are now starting to feel and understand what a regatta is about - what competing is about - and they love that. Rowing reinforces our message that there is almost nothing that is really worth doing that doesn’t require 10,000 hours of practice. You cannot sit in a boat and row really well, make yourself proud, your teammates proud and your parents proud unless you put in the hours. You’ve got to stick at things, to get out there on that horrible night in December, when it’s nearly dark and nobody wants to go near that water, but you go out and you end up feeling great about it. It’s also a sport which lends itself to measurable progress. You train and, before too long, you see the difference.

 

If something is backed from the top, it will get support. I spent half an hour last week with the last students in the building on a Friday evening - the rowers. My first thought was ‘this is breathtaking’. These students will blow the lid off the performance of all schools in the region. I don’t think we would ever have said it, but rowing has become one of the principle contributing factors to that performance. Unlike other activities, if we took rowing out of the curriculum, there would be revolution.

I want all of our children in all of our schools to have the opportunity to row - to have access to a coach and to get onto the water. If they want to take it further, we want to make sure they have the chance to go on and compete.

 

A programme like this takes diligence, graft and rigour. Another thing we are also conscious of is that rowing is an expensive sport. We must plan carefully so that once the early enthusiasts have gone, we have a sustainable financial structure. We also want to press forward with the associated medical research (iRoW), with RowUK and the University of Leeds. The relationship we have with the University is extremely valuable and important to us.

We want to win some big regattas. I want to prove that you don’t need multi-million pound investments to win. We do want to have some success stories but, mostly, I just want our children to enjoy the sport.”

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