Bad news, to put it mildly, reached me yesterday from London. It seems that the London Oratory School has announced that it is shutting down its rowing programme. This will apparently involve winding up the LOSBC, laying off its staff, selling its assets, and using the proceeds to offset the school’s budget deficit.
The school has, I understand, said that the rowing programme is costing £150K p.a. to run and that this is unsustainable.
This is the programme which I ran for 9 years when I was a teacher at the school, so it is something which is close to my heart. And if what I hear is all true (and it is hard to believe, so I hope it is not) then I think the school would be making a huge mistake, and should urgently reconsider.
Here are some off-the-cuff thoughts about why I believe shutting down the rowing programme would be the wrong thing to do:
- The total cost is unlikely to be anything like the £150K quoted. It is a while since I was involved, but whichever way I look at it I can’t get my estimated total for wages, boathouse rental and other expenses up to much more than £100K. So I’d like to see their figures.
- The net cost to the school is in any case considerably less than the total, as a substantial part is covered by donations and club member subscriptions. £50K is my bottom line estimate for the school’s net expenditure – about one third of what has been quoted.
- The assets, which include a £50K boat-purchase fund and a valuable collection of boats built up over the past 10 years, were accumulated largely through parental donations. So although the school technically controls these assets, they are in a sense being held in trust for their intended purpose and should not, most people would think, be used for other purposes without the knowledge or consent of the donors and their successors. To simply absorb them into the school’s general funds would resemble asset-stripping of the most egregious kind.
- The benefits. The link between rowing and academic achievement is real and well-documented. The fitness and self-discipline built up by training feeds through into better exam results and university offers. The many successes achieved by LOS boys who are currently competing in top university crews shows how irresponsible it would be for any school to shut down a successful rowing programme unless this was unavoidable.
- The real value of the LOS programme, not just to the school but also to British rowing generally and thus the country at large, is actually far greater than its comparatively modest assets might suggest. This is a story with all kinds of social and political angles: here is a comprehensive school which started with no assets and no track record, and within 10 years was winning events in its own boats against the big-name bastions of privilege – such as Westminster, St. Paul’s and Eton – which have dominated Thames rowing for the past 100 years. LOSBC is currently producing a stream of talented rowers who are going on to join top university and national squads, and demonstrating how “social mobility” can apply to sporting as well as professional life. Far from being shut down, it should be given increased support, and used as a model for other state schools with sporting aspirations.
- The Stakeholders. If the school nevertheless feels that it needs to consider closing the club, it should surely make no move in that direction without first consulting those involved, explaining the rationale, and discussing the options. If cost really is the issue, then it is entirely possible that further fundraising or sponsorship could be organised to fill the gap. The club’s supporters have been outstandingly successful in fundraising in the past, and should be given the opportunity to step into the breach now.
- The pushback. If, on the other hand, it turns out that the rationale is simply one of short-term financial expediency, then we are looking at the start of a real scandal. The club members and their supporters will not take this lying down: they will be looking for ways to salvage the situation. And there will be a lot of people, including me, cheering them on from the towpath.