Tomorrow night, The RowUK Foundation will be launched with a dinner on the Lords Terrace in the Palace of Westminster. It should be great occasion, allowing us to talk about the work we are doing in the north of the country in disadvantaged communities. It will also be an opportunity to kick-start the important fundraising which we hope will allow many more young people to experience a sport which isn’t always synonymous with back to back terraces and bog-standard comprehensives.
The RowUK Foundation has been created to help us bridge the gap between the programmes we offer and the just-managing families who want to support their young people yet can’t always find the means to do so.
Whether it is building our fleet of rowing machines to loan into schools, training our squad of volunteer coaches, running indoor rowing events, buying boats for junior clubs, or providing bursaries for kids on Pupil Premium; we like to think that rowing has some special qualities worth sharing.
The rowing world is one that, by and large, has the means to generously support charities like ours – and it does. Owing to the costs of running a boathouse, rowing is a sport which, at a school level, is largely the preserve of well-resourced institutions. That resource often goes hand in hand with beautiful buildings, small class sizes and enviable social networks. Above all, that resource can help deliver an extra-curricular offer which forges and tests those essential intangibles: confidence, self-control, commitment and conscientiousness.
It is of course true that good results in school and university are the building blocks of future prosperity. However, it is what is learnt inside school, yet outside of the classroom which furnishes us with the social ease, the self-belief and the drive to make the best of our strengths, whatever they might be.
For those of us lucky enough to have been propped, steered and cheered by apparently unseen hands, we might understandably permit ourselves to imagine we are diligent, competent and resilient by nature. Having worked in every educational setting, from a bucolic Kent boarding school, to a gang-riven Hackney academy, and a post-industrial crumbling comp, I suggest that this may not be the full picture. Yes, we can all point to examples of the public school delinquent or the self-made slum-dog, but these are the exceptions and we ought to be careful about assuming our temperament to be innate and our gifts god given.
For most of us, the way we negotiate the world and make it work for us, is a consequence of the environment in which we were raised. Every small gesture, act of kindness, subtle message and quiet word has an effect. They accumulate. Young people notice when adults give them their time. They see who ‘goes the extra mile’, ‘digs deep’ or ‘lets their actions speak’. They see the consequences of those actions and learn, by increment, to imitate.
But what if no-one gave you their time? What if shirking a challenge was the norm where you grew up? What if school finished at 2:30pm and you had nothing to do all afternoon? What if ‘trying’ was the least impressive thing your peers could imagine? Slowly, that starts to shape you. Ambition becomes tethered, purpose dimmed, and ‘belonging’ is sometimes just about keeping your head down. These guiding hands are just as gradual and all the more pervasive and enduring for it. The RowUK Foundation exists to provide a very different environment where it is needed most.
For us, it’s all the little ways we build up our young people that matter. We are obsessive about getting the detail right. For us, rowing is the vehicle, and we think, for very good reasons it’s an excellent vehicle, irrespective of the regrettably high cost of entry. It is our job, with your support, to make those first steps affordable and, where necessary, to continue supporting young people for as long as necessary.
Why rowing? Many times I’ve told myself that what I’m trying to do would be much easier with football or athletics. When I asked a Principal in one of our schools the same question, his answer reminded me that we’re onto something. He said, “For our children, rowing is like going to a Buckingham Palace garden party. It’s a glimpse into another world. If I can support them in slowly but surely feeling like they can confidently be themselves in that world, and maybe even prevail as well, then there is nothing better I could do for them.”
It might be that some of the children we work with get to stand on the medal rostrum at Dorney Lake. I’ve seen my athletes do that before and it’s great to witness. Most of all, I just want them to be as comfortable chatting to new friends under a pastel-coloured marquee as they are back home kicking a ball up against the wall. If they do go to university and feel like they belong - and maybe never pick up anothe