Students pawns of self-serving principals

It should be a profound embarrassment for our school principals that there exists the need for anti-poaching rules in school sport.

One might think schools would practice sportsmanship as a top priority but it seems that too often the reputation of the school takes precedence over practising the values espoused in weekly school assemblies.

In the last week private St Kentigern’s College in east Auckland has had its first XV coach Tai Lavea censured and required to have no match-day contact with the team for five weeks for his part in assisting a top Pacific Island player from Papatoetoe’s decile two Aorere College transfer to St Kent’s. Instead of apologising the school principal Steve Cole made excuses for his coach saying Lavea did not coerce the student to come to the school, did not have a reckless disregard for the anti-poaching bylaws or set out to deliberately flout them.

With his comments Cole puts up straw-man arguments to look good as he knocks them down. He would have done better for everyone had he accepted the decision and apologized.

The ironies of this particular poaching have continued since with a former Aorere College principal, Mike Williams, attacking Close Up presenter Mark Sainsbury who made repeated references on TV to St Kent’s being the “better” school. Making such assumptions is typical of a media who repeatedly refer to private schools as “top” schools. In this case Williams points out that the NCEA pass rates for Year 13 Pacific Island students at Aorere (the poached player was a Year 13 Pacific Island student) was 39.8% compared to 40% at St Kents. At Year 12 the Aorere pass rate was 36.6% while at St Kent’s it was a mere 20%.

In rugby too both schools are in the Auckland 1A competition and last year Aorere finished higher on the points table than St Kent’s. It seems money can buy a lot of prestige but not much of substance.

The practice of poaching players has gone on for decades because rugby has always been the most highly contested battlefield between schools.

The height of my rugby career was making the trials for the third rugby XV at Napier Boys’ High School. I didn’t make the team but enjoyed the local fourth grade competition in my last two years at high school. The first XV was always presented as a cut above the rest. The school never had the Maori culture group perform in the five years I was there but the first XV were regularly paraded. I remember my acute annoyance after taking part in one of those walkathons to raise money for school sports equipment only to find a few weeks later the first XV decked out in new tracksuits and blazers so they’d look the part.

Here in Auckland player poaching took on a new life after the Tomorrow’s Schools reforms where schools were told they were on their own and should be competing with each other.

The first rule for academic, sporting or cultural competition is to start with the best students you can enrol. So schools in high income areas put high achievement as the first priority for enrolment. They also offered scholarships to entice top performers to attend. Students who lived next door to a school were frequently overlooked in favour of students from well outside the local area.

A typical example from my experience in the 1990s was an outstanding rugby player at a middle decile school being visited by the deputy principal from a wealthy state school and induced to transfer schools with the cost of uniform, schools fees and daily transport covered in the deal.

These poaching schools complained loudly when Labour changed the zoning rules a decade ago to give all students the right to attend their local school and require a supervised ballot for any additional places. So how could a school find a way around that? It wasn’t as difficult as it sounds. Simply screw the scrum by holding two ballots. The first ballot takes place and those who miss out go away and enrol elsewhere. But some students who miss out are quietly asked to leave their names in. The school holds back some places on the grounds it can’t be sure if there might be an unexpected influx of students into the home zone at the last minute which they’d be required to take. Sounds reasonable but it’s all smoke and mirrors. When the possible influx doesn’t materialise the second ballot is held and suddenly the school’s sporting prospects look that much better.

The controversy in Australian rugby league over the breaching of the salary cap rules by the Melbourne Storm two weeks ago is being played out here in school sport every year. Winning at all costs is the name of the game with students used as pawns in promoting a school’s image and the careers of self-serving principals.