We’re proud that the London Borough of Croydon is the location for our first UK schools project. It’s an appropriate setting as this is the very community that Matt was so wholeheartedly immersed within, passionate about, and committed to.
It’s well documented that the area has many underprivileged neighbourhoods, whose younger members face significant challenges. Amongst the school-age population there’s a high incidence of ACE (Adverse Childhood Experience), leaving these kids severely disadvantaged in terms of education and employment prospects. Furthermore, the lure of unhealthy influences is undoubtedly prevalent, making it all too easy for them to lose their way.
But unquestionably there’s a vast untapped wealth of potential amongst Croydon’s young people. A terrifically promising, talented, resourceful community, benefiting from a healthy cultural diversity. We at the Foundation are determined to provide them with an environment where they may flourish. Our “Let’s Play Rugby” initiative aims to get them doing just that. In short there are vast numbers of kids who would not otherwise get the opportunity to try the game, and equally importantly to experience the uniquely supportive and tolerant ethos it advocates.
Our intention is that this will provide the positive environment which they might not otherwise have access to, and an ongoing opportunity for them to excel and progress, continuously championed by the Foundation. The intended outcome is twofold: that they are welcomed into an accepting and supportive new community, and also that they acquire valuable life skills and confidence in their social mobility to access opportunities that might otherwise have been denied them, whatever future they aspire to.
As local MP Sarah Jones pointed out so emphatically in her support of our initiative, young people from the area’s numerous underprivileged and neglected neighbourhoods have abundant potential that is so often left unfulfilled. At the Matt Ratana Rugby Foundation, we're full of focus, energy and determination to change that.
Our initial focus has been on connecting with local schools that do not offer rugby. By providing the equipment, coaching and organisational resources, we work with them to encourage pupils to try a session, and then make a regular commitment. We aim to develop both their skills and also a greater understanding of the benefits of team sport and its values. Having our own coaches delivering a consistently fun and engaging programme means we have been able to steadily increase the numbers involved. So far we have concentrated on the Year 7– 9 age groups, but in due course we plan to include primary schools.
We have been building the project at our first partner school, Meridian, for over a year now, with sessions for years 7/8/9. Across these age groups the programme has attendance of around 45 students each week. At Harris Academy, working with the same age groups, we see about 16 regular weekly participants. Naturally, funding permitting, our goal is to consolidate progress, develop these numbers, and also keep building and expanding into other schools.
The provision of meaningful ongoing support after this brief introductory course is critical. Continuity and consistency is key. Enduring contact with reliable adult guidance is crucial to the welfare of these youngsters. We are committed to being there for them as they progress, develop and face further challenges. We will provide the nurturing framework for them to connect with their local club, thereby continuing their rugby journey.
The second stage of the project focuses on local rugby clubs, and has been greatly helped by our partnership with Star Scheme. This outstanding organisation helps young people and families overcome the impact of Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) through engagement with grassroots rugby. This key link allows young students to transition from school sport to the healthy environment of their local club, to build healthy ongoing relationships within a supportive community. So far, under our mentoring, 16 young people have successfully taken this step.
In Croydon, with 5 schools and 4 local clubs committed, we are massively encouraged to see our plans in action, after the frustrating delays of the pandemic. To be away from the drawing board and have the ball finally in play only increases our motivation not only to scale up these numbers but also to develop and improve our programmes. Direct engagement with the local community, producing tangible results, remains the Foundation’s central focus. Raising both funding and awareness is as ever crucial to drive us forward, and all support is greatly appreciated.