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Rugby coaching is helping School of Hard Knocks tackle unemployment head-on

The social inclusion charity tries to help those on the blindside get into work by lacing up their boots to play rugby as well as brushing up their employment skills in the classroom

Last month UK unemployment rose at the fastest rate in five years. A total of 46,000 Brits joined the search for work, taking the total number without a job up to 1.47 million – or 4.4 per cent of the working population – a growth most keenly felt by those under the age of 24, according to figures from the Office for National Statistics.

While they join the scrum at the job centre, could playing rugby be the key to getting them into long-term work? As unlikely as that sounds, social inclusion charity School of Hard Knocks (SOHK) has proved that using a combination of sports such as rugby and boxing, alongside class-based activities, can help kick youth unemployment into touch.

Ken Cowen founded SOHK in 2007 for a local authority near Liverpool, delivering the concept of working with people across the UK from disadvantaged backgrounds and teaching them to play rugby with all the discipline, teamwork and positivity it entails. Sky Sports heard about the project and agreed to film the work as a documentary. The show became a huge success, and seeing the outcomes – and improved life chances of the people who took part in it – Ken decided to turn it into a charity and expand the organisation in 2012. Now following the work of the charity as it grows, SOHK is still a popular fixture on the Sky schedules.

Behind the TV cameras though the organisation is growing exponentially. In 2015 it launched in schools, and the Scottish side of SOHK started in March 2017, with six and eight-week employability courses delivered alongside social landlord North Glasgow Homes in the Springburn area of the city, as well as in locations in the east of the country and Edinburgh. The success has been phenomenal: 72 per cent of those who completed the course in Edinburgh are now in full-time work.

Each course tasks clients to lace up their boots to play rugby for two hours a day before spending the same amount of time in the classroom polishing job-hunting skills such as CV- writing and undergoing mock interviews.

Former Big Issue vendor Joe Gallagher – who documented his journey from rough sleeping to employment through his regular diary for the magazine, written under the pen name ‘James Campbell’ – was among the first intake of School of Hard Knocks in the Scottish capital, locking horns with the course at Lismore Rugby Club last April before graduating in June.


Despite securing himself a flat shortly before the start of the course after time spent rough sleeping and in temporary accommodation, by his own admission, Joe was not a prime candidate for the course – or so he thought. But being 51 years old, out of shape and never picking up a rugby ball is no barrier to entry at SOHK.

“At the time I was starting to get my life back together and one of my mottos was ‘always try something new’,” he says.

School of Hard Knocks

“I’m not a rugby player and I still don’t know the rules to be honest but it is still one of the best things that I have been involved with. I was probably the least athletic player there and the slowest player on the pitch but the experience built up my confidence to do things and let me work on my self-esteem.

“The course leaders encouraged me, and all the other lads, to think outside the box. I found that rugby was a series of very specific decisions that take about a second but we were able to slow it down and put that into practice in my life. I got so much out of it, so imagine how much someone who is into sports like rugby will get out of it.”


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And the rugby revolution is not just for burly blokes. Katrina, a mother-of-two, had been out of work for a number of years when she took part in the first SOHK women’s rugby course in the UK in early 2015. After finishing the course, she was offered a job at the Carlton Hotel, overlooking the Royal Mile in the centre of Edinburgh. She said: “Becoming part of the ‘SOHK family’ has been an experience I will never forget.”

While the work-based results are tangible, the improvement in personal confidence and other qualities that give participants better life chances are also evident. A whopping 90 per cent of participants say self-confidence improved, 97 per cent were “more hopeful” and 96 per cent said they were more motivated. Frankie, 16, from East London, played rugby at SOHK in 2016 and saw an immediate improvement in his confidence. He said: “Since joining School of Hard Knocks I’ve been less shy. It might sound stupid but before I wouldn’t even go and buy something from a shopkeeper. I would always get someone else to buy it for me.

“That was mainly it, just the shyness. I don’t feel that as much now.

“I think our team work is really improving. I feel like I’m in a new family and I’m spending more time with people who I wouldn’t have spent time with before.”

I’m not a rugby player and I still don’t know the rules to be honest but it is still one of the best things that I have been involved with

As further testament to the effectiveness of its work, SOHK has also been awarded several contracts by the Department for Work and Pensions, for which it receives payment in arrears. To support delivery of these contracts, Big Issue Invest, The Big Issue’s social investment arm, has provided SOHK with a £100,000 loan from its Impact Loans England programme. This facility will allow the charity to draw down money if its cash flow gets tight.

SOHK also relies heavily on donations and sponsorship to deliver its courses – with £600 funding a year’s rugby and mentoring for a child, £1,000 helping an adult through an eight-week course and £10,000 funding an entire group at one school for 12 months.

A lack of love for rugby didn't stop Joe Gallagher from getting the most out of School of Hard Knocks

Alan Tudhope, investment manager at Big Issue Invest, said: “We at Big Issue Invest are delighted that our investment will enable School of Hard Knocks to support more unemployed adults into work, and prevent more at-risk children being excluded from school. The results they achieve, particularly in deprived parts of the country, are a real testament to their ability to engage, motivate and inspire.”

Nobody knows this better than Joe, who has gone on to full-time employment following the course and is now helping others tread the same path.

“I think with regards to people who might have come out of prison, lost their job or have been homeless, it is a great option when they need to straighten their life out,” he said.

“I’m now working for a drugs charity in Edinburgh and I still refer many clients I work with to the course – it is that good. That is nothing to do with drugs, nothing to do with alcohol, nothing to do with homelessness – I know people will get something out of it.”

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