Written evidence submitted by the School of Hard Knocks (SoHK)

Snapshot evaluation

Across the board, 20-25% of the pupils we see each week we have a huge impact in their attendance – often with them only attending school because of us. My colleagues have kindly written up some brief case studies around this:

Pupil A – Yr.7 – Bacons College

Pupil A has additional needs and a complex home life. She struggled immensely during COVID and has found the reintegration into Secondary school very difficult. She has been on SoHK since September 2022 and has fully embraced the programme. She struggles with her fitness levels but always tries her best and gets fully immersed into the session. She has created important links with staff members and relies heavily on the mentoring she receives. Her attendance has improved a lot from Primary school but she never misses a Tuesday, when she has SoHK.


Pupil B – Yr. 9 Bacons College

Pupil B is a school refuser with complex needs. She came to Bacons College on a manage move and very quickly her attendance dropped. She was placed onto the SoHK programme and quickly created excellent relationships with the staff. Over the next few weeks her attendance improved however a month in it began to fall away again except for Tuesdays. She allowed staff to help create her a bespoke timetable where she felt she could access some lessons and always came in on Tuesdays for the programme. After the February half term, she struggled to return to school, so a meeting was set up on a Tuesday with SoHK staff and parents to help bridge the gap for her to return to school.


Pupil C – Yr. 9 Warlingham School

Pupil C l is on the SEND register and has an Educational Health Care Plan. His behaviour has been very challenging for the school, and he has been on extended placements away from the school at the local Pupil Referral Unit. He joined SoHK at the end of Yr. 8 and has been on it now for over a year. Since September, we have seen him only attend on Fridays for SoHK and on other days either have a reduced timetable or attend another placement. Over the last few months, he has thrown himself into the programme and even joined a rugby club outside school. He is now attending school full time, but his attendance is always 100% on a Friday when he has the programme.


Pupil D – Ridgeway School

“I don’t enjoy school very much and I am currently only doing core subjects but sometimes I don’t even come in to do them. I only come in on a Friday to do SoHK because it’s fun and enjoyable. The indoor sessions are not like school lessons because we are learning about real life situations. The outdoor sessions are great”.

Pupil E – Ridgeway School

“I’m currently only on a part time timetable so I don’t come in everyday, but I make sure I come in every Friday for SoHK because I really enjoy the rugby session and the indoor sessions are more enjoyable that normal school lessons”.



Why Rugby Helps Change Behaviour

He was tackled to the ground and before he knew it several other boys were trying to wrestle the rugby ball from his grasp (teaching the law about not holding on to the ball when tackled is a work in progress!). In the end, he was left lying on the grass, alone. Until, that is, the smallest member of the group doubled-back and offered him a hand up, which he gratefully accepted, smiled and ran on to re-join the game.

The reason this all seemed so remarkable is that just two months prior to this, “Reece” had been suspended for fighting. In the opinion of SOHK staff, part of the reason for his suspension was a lack of emotional control as well as the peer pressure to rise to any threat with violence.

Sport in general is now acknowledged as an effective means of changing behaviour and developing life skills (Fraser-Thomas, Cote, & Deakin, 2005), but I feel there is something unique that rugby brings as an intervention of this type. While I was completing my supervised experience for Sport Psychology, I was influenced by Chris Harwood’s “5Cs” model (more here: About The 5Cs – The 5Cs). This is a framework of five items beginning with C, which capture the psychological element of performance – Confidence, Control, Commitment, Communication and Concentration. There was also a 6th “C” - “Cohesion” which I’ve held on to, letting go of the “Concentration” as it applies less to our work at SOHK. I have always loved its simplicity and the fact for me it encompasses everything related to mental performance. When we talk about changing “behaviour” at School of Hard Knocks, we are specifically talking about improving one or more of the 5Cs.

It’s through this framework therefore, that I’d like to explain how we use rugby to change behaviour.


While many of the pupils may receive support from various outlets to try and learn new skills around this, it is rare that they have an actual opportunity to practice these skills actively, with other people in real time. Part of the reason SOHK uses rugby is as a means of providing controlled confrontation, so pupils can practice techniques to control their emotions. This takes place in a positive, supportive environment with adults that they form healthy working relationships with. This may be at odds with their home lives and our staff often work with the child to explicitly make the connection between what they’ve learned within the rugby and how this may transfer to their home and school life.


Skill acquisition in sport has been linked with increased confidence. At SOHK, we see a change in people when they achieve something tangible, like learning and improving at rugby. While most people we work with would not be confident of trying rugby from the outset, it’s our experience that the majority are much more comfortable to throw, catch and run around. I think this fundamental element of rugby makes it more accessible than other sports, arguably even football as novices are more skilled with their hands than their feet. Secondly, the physical element of rugby – particularly tackling can be quite scary for some people initially. The increase in confidence we see from mastering this element is then, understandably, even greater.


We understand “commitment” as the level of effort put into something over time. At School of Hard Knocks, we discuss that committing to the tackle means having a greater chance of success and being safer; versus being undecided or not fully committed and getting hurt. We then make this comparison to other areas of participants’ lives – school, work, family, education, career goals. We may gently challenge and question how committed participants are to the things they say they want and whether they are demonstrating this commitment within their actions.


Rugby shares the feature of most team sports in that deliberate practice enhances communication between players – be it verbal or non-verbal, as they begin to work as a team. Rugby is also a naturally fun game an enables our staff to build strong rapport and working relationships with people they are trying to help. One-to-one mentoring forms a large part of our work with school children and getting them to a point they can communicate their feelings is significant. There is a saying that “all behaviour is a form of communication” and for many children we work who would be classed as the traditionally “bad or naughty kids”, their disruptive behaviour is often a means of them communicating their needs to the adults around them. By building the rapport through rugby and close mentoring, we are able to help children more accurately describe their feelings, challenges and needs and get the support they need to thrive. Exactly the same principles apply to the adults we help, who are often very isolated. The rugby provides them the first opportunity in a while to speak to others and is a much easier way to get talking to strangers then sitting down at a coffee morning, for example.


Anyone who has played rugby at any level will tell you how much playing for a club makes them feel part of a bigger family and how the community looks after each other. It is this feeling we try to emulate with both our school and adult programmes. Participants make new friends, are part of a new, positively focused groups and feel part of something bigger than just their school or local community. We also heavily encourage informal peer to peer support. In schools this may mean children in older age groups looking out for younger SOHK participants around school. In adults, we regularly see participants forming close, supportive bonds and even finding each other jobs. I have included this as the final “C” as it is probably the least tangible and hardest to measure, but it really is the secret to using rugby for powerful change.


School of Hard Knocks programme for schools

This 3-min video is our most recent and explains the work a little more:

In terms of what a day looks like, it will be roughly like this:

1 Hour Group Workshop on the SOHK curriculum (themes including empowerment, sexual consent, personal responsibility, team work and many others)

1 Hour Rugby Session – starting with non-contact and building up the physical contact element throughout the year

15min 121 mentoring sessions – each pupil receives one a fortnight or more or less dependent on their need.

This pattern will typically be repeated twice in a day for 2 cohorts of 40 children or altered slightly in schools where we have more children. We aim to start the programme in Year 9 and run it for 3 years until Year 11, with the level of mentoring reducing as they get older and focus on their GCSEs.

May 2023