Over three-quarters of boys in state-funded secondary schools are compelled to play contact rugby, despite high risk of injury

18 Jul 2022

Contact rugby has a high risk of injury and concussion, yet new research led by the University of Winchester, Oxford Brookes University and the University of Newcastle has shown boys in state-funded secondary schools are compelled to play it within the physical education curriculum.

A Freedom of Information Act request to schools found that contact rugby is a compulsory activity in over three-quarters of state-funded secondary schools for boys.

The key findings of the study reveal that:

  • Contact rugby is delivered in 81 per cent of state-funded secondary school physical education curricula
    Contact rugby is compulsory for 91 per cent of boys and 54 per cent of girls when it is part of physical education.

The study - led by Dr John Batten from the University of Winchester, Dr Adam J White from Oxford Brookes University, and Professor Allyson Pollock from Newcastle University - also found that 67 per cent of subject leaders believed contact rugby had the highest risk of harm in the physical education curriculum.

"We know that full contact rugby carries a high risk of injury, and particularly concussion, that has a potential for long-term health problems. There are many non-contact versions of rugby that provide the same benefits for children but without the same harms," said Dr Adam J White, Senior Lecturer at Oxford Brookes University and Executive Director at head injury charity the Concussion Legacy Foundation.

Dr John Batten, Senior Fellow in Learning and Teaching at the University of Winchester, added: "Non-contact versions of rugby, such as touch rugby, should become the default form of rugby played in physical education. Such forms of rugby will provide a range of physiological and psychological health benefits, whilst reducing the likelihood of brain injury."

Speaking recently on BBC's HARDtalk programme, 2003 World Cup winner Steve Thompson MBE said: "Do I think it's safe for kids to do tackle rugby? No I don't."

"Recent research from The Drake Foundation found that that 65 per cent of parents wanted to see tackling prohibited from Under-14 rugby and over half of parents shared concerns that rugby could have a long-term impact on their child's brain health."

Removing compulsory contact rugby from school sport will still allow Government targets on physical literacy and competitive sport to be met but will protect children and ensure that they are not exposed to unnecessary risks.

Professor Allyson Pollock, Clinical Professor of Public Health at Newcastle University, said "School leaders need to put the welfare of children first in physical education. They know that contact rugby has the highest risk of harm, and the benefits can be delivered without the risks of injury and concussion in non-contact games. They need to act now in the best interests of children's health and wellbeing."

The study was based on data obtained from 288 state-funded secondary schools, with 293,414 pupils equating to 9 per cent of state-funded secondary school pupils in England. Schools surveyed were drawn from Cheshire, Cornwall, Dorset, Essex, Gloucestershire, Hertfordshire, Merseyside, Northamptonshire, Northumberland, Staffordshire, and Suffolk.

The full study is available online at this link.

Collaborators were: Professor Eric Anderson, also from the University of Winchester; Nathan E Howarth; Dr Rory Magrath; Dr Joe Piggin; Professor Pete Millward; Dr Keith D Parry; Dr Melanie Lang; Dr Rachael Bullingham; Professor Alan J Pearce; Luis Morales; Gary Turner; Connor Tyler Humphries; Dr Jack Hardwicke, and Graham Kirkwood.

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