St Paul’s and Winchester face a new five-way rivalry – the game of handball which for hundreds of years was largely the preserve of the more rarefied state schools.
Children at Stoke Newington School in Hackney, east London, are leading a new wave of state school rugby fives players who have started training to face their privileged counterparts in matches that will span the one of the most entrenched social divisions in the UK.
Other schools playing the five-year version of 200 include Marlborough College in Wiltshire, the Duchess of Cambridge’s alma mater, and Fettes College in Edinburgh, attended by Tony Blair. Stoke Newington players could soon be joined by many other state school players in a move by five-year-old coach Howard Wiseman to raise £6million to build courts in 10 more downtown schools.
It turns into a bold experiment in using sport to boost social mobility while finding ways to bring organized games to urban public schools that lack space for soccer or tennis courts.
This week, teenagers at Stoke Newington school, where 30 per cent of pupils qualify for free school meals for families on benefits, donned thick gloves and practiced hitting a small leather ball around of six newly landscaped four-sided courts.
Similar to squash, five players take turns hitting the ball against the front wall and must keep it over a line positioned at knee height. The ball can bounce off any walls, but if a player allows it to bounce twice on the floor, they may lose the point.
The simple game that requires virtually no equipment and good technique tutoring for beginners, proves to be a hit.
“I want to see how the poshos play,” said Ameddzhan Ismet, 14, when asked about the prospect of playing against St Paul’s School, which charges an annual fee of £41,400 and counts former Chancellor George Osborne among its old students. “Some of them don’t like public schools. It could be revenge.
He jokes, if only in part, adding: “It will be nice to meet them. It’s gonna be fun.”
It comes amid concerns about how some sports continue to deepen social divides. About 35% of Team GB medalists at the Tokyo Olympics last year spent at least some time in private schools, compared to 7% of the population who attend fee-paying schools, according to an analysis by Schools Week magazine.
When it comes to professional sport, 43% of cricketers in the UK have attended independent schools and 37% of rugby players, the “Elitist Britain” study by the Sutton Trust found.
Stoke Newington is set to become the second public school in the country to have rugby 5s pitches. Eton Fives, a different take on the game with no back wall and a protruding buttress reflecting the quirks of the 15th century chapel where it was played for the first time, is played in a handful of public schools, but mostly old grammars.
Ameddzhan is coached by a former member of Derby Moor, so far the only state school to play rugby fives.
“It showed me that I don’t need to be rich to be successful,” said 19-year-old Raheem Yusef. “The fact that I come from a disadvantaged background made me more determined. It was unnerving to be around people outside of my comfort zone. I had to adapt over the years and it helped me 100%.”
The push to widen participation to five is accompanied by a campaign by Daniel Grant, an NHS doctor and avid gamer, to erect wallball courts – a one-wall version of the game popular in the United States, particularly in the public parks and shopping malls, in part to improve public health.
Wiseman said some of his state school players applied to five-a-side universities like Oxford and Cambridge because the sport had broadened their horizons.
One aspect of the game is that players act as their own referees, and that can be a learning curve.
Wiseman said that when he took public school pupils to play a different version of the game at Eton, “my group was in tears because they felt they had been cheated, but they didn’t have it. They didn’t. They were playing kids who were more confident. If their opponent felt the ball had dropped, they were better at defending their cause.
After a year or two of playing, public school children felt comfortable discussing their corner.
“To do this in all classes is an incredible opportunity,” he said.