Steve Bates' new role at Fettes raises bar for Scots schools

FETTES College took a major stride towards improving their sporting culture and lifting ambition in school sport by appointing former Newcastle and Scotland 'A' coach Steve Bates as a new director of sport.

The former England scrum-half has been out of top-flight rugby since May, when he was replaced as Newcastle's head coach by his assistant Alan Tait. He had been the Borders head coach from 2004-7, when the team was scrapped, and was a popular figure in the Scottish game.

Prior to taking over at Newcastle in 1996, however, when he came north with Rob Andrew in the vanguard of the professional revolution in English rugby, he was a teacher at Radley College - where he worked alongside Michael Spens, the current Fettes headteacher - and Lord Wandsworth College, where he persuaded Jonny Wilkinson to follow his path to Newcastle.

He has been coaching recently at Northumbria University, and with few job offers close to home, he felt it was a good time to move back into teaching, in what he termed an "exciting new role".

Spens, Fettes headteacher for 13 years, hoped that the appointment would take the school's rugby to a new level, Fettes not having produced a full internationalist since Bill Gammell in the 1970s, but insisted that the appointment was about much more than rugby success.

He said: "I'm delighted that we have been able to tempt Steve back into school sport, and I believe his presence will do a huge amount for Scottish school sport. Fettes has produced many fine sportsmen and women over the years, but we're still a bit in the 'glorious amateur years' mentality with sport and what we haven't really done is adopt the same professional approach to sport that we have in academics.

"Steve's remit is to come and develop a strategic programme to develop sporting talent throughout the school, from seven and eight-year-olds at the prep school to 18, and give everybody here the opportunity to develop what sporting talent they have.

"The remit is across the board, all sports and both genders, to encourage Fettes boys and girls to be the best they can be on a sporting front in the same way others do in academic, musical and artistic fronts."

Fettes has a PE staff of eight, working under Chris Thomson and Belinda Appleson, but it is pleasing to hear of a Scottish school pushing sport to the centre of school life and encouraging to see a coach with Bates' experience, knowledge and expertise working at the grassroots level.

Bates believes that his move will become a common one. He said: "Rugby has been professional for over 15 years and a lot of players are coming out now looking for coaching opportunities in pro rugby, and there aren't enough to go round. But it would be a real shame if their experiences were lost to the game."The most obvious way forward is to put those people into the grassroots of the game. The most fertile area is in schools. There are great examples in England, with former internationalists now coaching in schools, and I think we will see more of that in Scotland in the future."

Bates will not take over at Fettes until September, to allow his daughter to finish school in England and the family to move north, but he will spend the next six months meeting contacts in English schools and studying Scottish school sport.

School rugby in Scotland is at a crossroads, with moves to homogenize schools and club teams to solve the lack of playing numbers, causing tension and an ongoing reluctance by independent schools such as Fettes to integrate fully with state schools in a league competition that many believe would significantly lift standards.

Independent schools have come under pressure to justify their charitable status by opening their doors more to the community. Spens spoke enthusiastically of Fettes' efforts to widen their reach with coaching days with local primary schools and sports scholarships to youngsters such as North Berwick's Tommy Spinks.

Bates' arrival, he said, was not specifically aligned to that, but his profile has real potential to drive sporting development inside and outside Fettes. An integrated league competition, however, still appears to be a step too far.

Spens said: "That is an issue and is something we debate at length at the headmasters' meetings, but it's not that as independent schools we want to be stand-offish or anything of that sort. We want to support the SRU, but equally we don't want to be dictated to by the SRU. We can not have a league imposed on us that dictates what dates games must be played on because we would not want it cutting across traditional fixtures. If you imposed league fixtures on top of that, you could have boys playing too much rugby.

"I don't know if leagues are the way to go but, as a principle, I think I speak for all my fellow independent heads when I say we are all very keen to support Scottish rugby."

He added: "Steve has a great advantage in that he is well known on a national level and knows a lot of people at the SRU and across Scottish rugby. He is very sensible, practical and down to earth and could bring a lot of good ideas to Scottish rugby, which is what we want from the appointment."