Girls face ban from school in rugby row

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The Independent Online

Chief Reporter

Two girls may be banned from a school for refusing to take part in rugby coaching.

Lucy Gregory, 13, and her sister, Katie, 11, have been caught up in a row between their parents, who believe the sport is aggressive and dangerous, and the school's board of governors, who argue that the version of rugby on the curriculum is harmless.

Both sides in the argument at Purbrook Park School, near Havant, Hampshire, have taken legal advice that could lead to the girls being excluded in the new year.

The row erupted last month when Lucy told her parents, Carole, 40, and Peter, 41, that she had been instructed to buy a rugby jersey and a gumshield in order to play the game.

Mrs Gregory made inquiries and was told that the school's PE curriculum demanded that all 760 boys and girls had to take part in nine hours a year of tag rugby, which involves passing and scoring tries without physical contact. Pupils wear ribbons that must be pulled to represent a tackle.

"I have no problem with tag rugby because that isn't violent, but I was told that the girls must also take part in lessons to teach them how to tackle properly," Mrs Gregory said. "Now that involves serious physical contact and neither of my daughters wanted to do it. The school said the lessons would be supervised but they still involve the risk of injury, otherwise why would a gumshield be necessary?"

The matter came to a head on 22 November when, during a meeting with the school's curriculum committee, the Gregorys said they had been advised that to force the girls into physical contact would represent "trespass on the person by design". The governors adjourned the meeting and took legal advice. On 24 November, Elizabeth Tullett, the chairwoman, wrote to say the girls had to play rugby and added: "This involves tackling and we are not prepared to change this." She said the Gregorys had to agree to the girls playing rugby or remove them from school.

"It is diabolical that someone can force children to play rugby against their will," Mr Gregory said. "I played the game for four years and lost four teeth, had my ear half-ripped off and damaged my knee - but that was my choice. These people aren't giving my daughters a choice."

Mrs Gregory said she would not remove the girls from the school, but neither would she agree to their taking part in tackling lessons.

Both girls have continued to attend the grant-maintained school but neither is playing rugby. Lucy has been excused because she has water on the knee and Katie becomes eligible only after Christmas. That is when the matter is likely to come to a head.

Michael Dopson, the headmaster, said he was resigned to the school's emerging as the villain of the piece, but higher principles were at stake.

"If we allow one pupil to choose what they will and will not do, we will have to allow all the others as well," he said. "Then it could spill over into lessons. What would I say when a parent said: 'Excuse me, but I don't want my child taught about the Holocaust'?

"The Rugby Football Union has confirmed that our rugby lessons are safe, and schools inspectors actually praised our curriculum in the summer. During the whole term, real tackling amounts to just 20 minutes.

Lucy Gregory said: "I like the school and I don't want to leave it. But rugby is an aggressive sport. I wouldn't like to be hurt, but I would feel even worse if I hurt a friend."