School sport has rapidly increased in profile and prestige in recent years. With greater pride comes greater falls. In this piece we examine the curious trend of the Year 14 student.

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They called them the 'Roskill Repeaters', a group of young men who shunned university or jobs for the chance to play in Auckland's premier schoolboy football league. A record seven players from Mt Roskill Grammar School's 1st XI returned for an extra year's study in 2016 after the team made the top grade for the first time. They became part of a curious phenomenon: the Year 14s. It's a small but controversial bracket of students, not least at Mt Roskill Grammar, a low-decile school in a multicultural belt of Auckland that is a world away from the old-money suburbs of Epsom and Mt Eden it borders. The team has faced a torrent of criticism from inside and outside the campus gates. "I [understood] the internal criticism; those people thought we should be doing better things. It was meant in a caring way," said team captain and former head boy, Glen Lewis. "But externally, I think it was hard for the other teams because it's always the same schools in the premier league. Because the Year 14s allowed us to be really competitive, I could be wrong but they didn't like the fact that a new school without a heritage of football was coming in and challenging them and sometimes beating them." They would hear the jibes from the sidelines. Opposition supporters, often parents, would yell "Roskill Repeaters" as they played. They were accused of being too big, too physical, though Lewis said other schools matched up to them in size. Lewis, like many who chose to repeat, had been in the team since Year 10, when the team was on the brink of being relegated from the school competition's fourth division. The following year a football programme called Being Roskill was set up by young English teacher Callum Christopher, a former pupil of the school and football coach. The programme aimed to inspire students to improve their grades through their passion for the game. Academy classes for juniors wove literacy and numeracy into football-themed lessons, as well as instilling values into the players. Three years, three promotions; MRGS had earned their right to play with the big boys. The only problem being was that the kids who had jumped on the bandwagon at the start were now due to hop off. Unless they bucked convention and repeated. School sport is big business. St Kentigern College, an East Auckland independent school, is said to have a rugby budget comparable to a national provincial championship team, around $200,000-$500,000, although they have always challenged this assertion as "fanciful". The amount of hours and money invested into tournaments and regattas ranging from the Super 8 to the Maadi Cup are increasing every year. Schools crave sporting success. It looks great in the prospectus, helps to mobilise wealthy old boys' networks and is a powerful marketing tool to attract fee-paying students, especially those schools with boarding hostels. With increased spend on sport there inevitably comes increased disparity between those who can and those who wish they could. School sport is not an even playing field. Wealthy independent and traditional single-sex state schools with established sporting pedigree and extensive alumni networks are playing downhill with a strong wind at their backs, while low-decile mainly co-ed schools, like Mt Roskill Grammar, are playing into the teeth of it. "We had a group of those Year 13 boys express a desire to return," says Christopher. "And we had a meeting about that, to talk about what it would look like, if it was possible." Doing Year 14 wasn't a given, each boy had to apply to return, but school wasn't blind to the benefits. "The decision for them to come back was a mutual thing. Because [the students] were aware of the benefit for them but we knew football-wise as a school we could have success in the premier league," Christopher said. Creating a sporting culture at Mt Roskill has been important to the school, says principal Greg Watson, with the football team a large part of that. "Three or four years ago the community said to us, 'You're good, but your sport is not so good.' We're hoping the attitudes of excellence and humility in these boys can change minds about what's possible. They're an arrowhead," Watson said. Kelston Boys' High School principal Brian Evans, who arrived in West Auckland via decile one De La Salle College, says the "complexities of school sport are huge". He is right. The Herald interviewed a number of principals, teachers, coaches and parents. Some on the record, many off. The only consensus was that consensus is impossible to reach when it comes to analysing what constitutes healthy inter-school competition. Topics that are particular touchstones for heated debate are the scouting and recruitment of intermediate school students, the seemingly unstoppable rise of independent schools as sporting juggernauts, and the trend towards students staying in school for an extra year. It is this last one perplexes those whose schooldays are a long way in the rearview mirror: why would any child or parent of a child choose to do, or allow their child, an extra, possibly wasted, year at school? Another of the 'Repeaters', Usamah Hakim, stayed at school against the wishes of his family, who feared it would be a lost year. Eventually, they came around to what he calls his "life changing" decision. "We did get a bit of criticism. There are always going to be people hating, but we dealt with it. We never took it to heart because we were just doing what we do, playing football." Hakim says he learned a lot more than the skills he needs to study business next year. "Before I joined the programme I was quite a shy, timid person. I kept to myself, I would be the guy that just went to school, went to class, went home when the bell rang. But being a part of the programme has given me the confidence to come out of my shell. I would do it all over again." Often the reasons are justified by the search for NCEA credits. "There is a place for Year 14s," Kelston's Evans says. "You get boys that are very young Year 13s and maybe they're catching up academically. The bottom line is: What are they coming back for? I interview every Year 13 boy that indicates they are coming back for another year. If they're coming back just for sport, that's not good enough and it will never work." If the data is accurate, the rates of Year 14 students has decreased over time. Back in the days when the education system was strictly linear - 5th form was for School Certificate, 6th form for University Entrance and 7th form for bursary - there were genuine educational reasons for returning if you had 'failed' a year. The NCEA system of level-based credits makes it harder to justify. "If you have a school or a team where you have large numbers coming back for Year 14 you have to ask questions about what they are doing," Evans says. What they're doing, more often than not, is trying to win a title. What they're hoping for is more difficult to quantify. This is where the New Zealand system of sports and education diverges wildly from the US, a point worth illustrating. Promising high school sports stars in the US are playing for college - what we call university - scholarships. This is their pathway to higher education and, for a miniscule percentage, a professional sports career. There are a few notable exceptions - LeBron James was one who joined the NBA straight from high school - but by and large that is the order of things. The theory being that those who don't get to live their sporting dreams have a college degree to fall back on. Here, high school sport has increasingly become the shop window for our most popular winter codes: rugby, league, netball and football. With 1st XV rugby being televised and other big events livestreamed, that shop window has never been more visible. Herchel Fruean is name unfamiliar to most sports fans in the country, but to rugby players hoping to make the jump from high school to the professional ranks, he is a near-mythical figure. Working out of his Hamilton bedroom, Fruean created a website and Facebook page that ranks the top 200 high school players in the country. He has plans to extend his domain from rugby to other major codes. This won't be universally well received. Already the site has endured backlash over the methodology used to rank players and the very fact that high school students are placed under such scrutiny. According to Fruean, a large man with an easy smile, a number of unions were unhappy with his work and let him know, while at the same time other staff within the unions were supplying him with information on players. By then the site had a momentum that convinced Fruean he had a role to play in the identification and profiling of talent. "This concept is about finding the kids, exposing them, getting their names out there and hopefully creating opportunities for them," he says. He believes rugby authorities deliberately tried to weaken his grip on the high school rugby conversation by not picking his 2016 No 1-ranked player, New Plymouth Boys' High school's Tom Florence, for either the New Zealand Secondary Schools team or the back-up Barbarian side. "He was not selected because he is my top pick and the selectors are trying to discredit me, but it's unfair on the boys," he texted after the teams were named. (In the interests of clarity, the we contacted a selector who said the reasons were far more fundamental: work rate and form.) When it comes to Year 14 students he says he has "mixed feelings" about their presence, but is careful about making sweeping generalisations. Some come back for honourable reasons, some come back, he says, because if they didn't they'd "literally be sitting on the couch at home doing nothing", while some come back for the "selfish" reason of making the New Zealand Secondary Schools side. In the end he treats them no differently on his rankings. "If they're coming back to get credits, why shouldn't they play rugby? Some kids learn at different levels. But if they're just coming back to play sport, to make the NZ Secs or to win that title, that's not good but it doesn't [affect their ranking]." The Year 14 problem in rugby is fairly localised and maybe even overstated, Fruean says. Some schools, most notably Rotorua Boys' High he says, have developed a reputation for it and often field vastly different teams in Super 8, where there are limits on the number of over-18 players eligible, to the national knockout competition, where there are no limits. In Auckland, sources say it has started to creep in at some schools, but there is often self-interest involved in highlighting the perceived 'crimes' of others. "Scanning my Top 200 players for 2016, I can only immediately identify four Year 14 kids, so it's not as if it's rife in rugby," Fruean says. Schools where Year 14s are actively discouraged have disdain for the concept and believe any benefits are overstated. A senior staffer at a large Auckland school with a fine sporting tradition who spoke on the condition of anonymity said any justification for kids returning for Year 14 was "complete bollocks". In their long career at the school there had not been a single Year 14 student, and any that indicated they would return would be talked out of it. "There is no reason for it. None. Schools are designed for your best students to leave at the end of Year 13. Many others will leave earlier, not later." The teacher was speaking through the prism of a high-decile school with a strong academic record. Schools that served low socio-economic areas might have more justification for encouraging Year 14 students as many enter high school with poor basic literacy levels. Even the platitudes, however, about young year 13s needing an extra year to mature before hitting the "real world" ring hollow to many. The cynical suggest that it is no coincidence that these Year 14s who require a longer stay at school tend to be boys who just happen to be excellent at sport. "There is no active encouragement here for boys who have completed [NCEA] level three to come back," says New Plymouth Boys' High director of sport David Bublitz. "Occasionally you might get one who needs to complete level three because they have a specific tertiary course in mind, but it is not something we'd ever promote. "We do see schools where there is a number of Year 14s and we do see schools that never have them. There is no industry standard, if you like." There is no question in Bublitz' mind, however, that schools that play Year 14s get a massive advantage. The former NBL basketball coach says to argue otherwise is pointless. "The physical advantages you get from playing Year 14s is massive, as are the mental advantages. In most cases it is the difference between playing a 16-year-old and a 19-year-old. It skews the competition." Back in Mt Roskill, the boys will say they had multiple reasons for coming back - a mixture of sport and education. Some will admit they wanted an extra year to make themselves visible to club scouts or, even better, to try to gain a scholarship to an American college. While it might seem far-fetched, a lottery-like approach to life's big decisions, teenagers tend not to be so cynical about broad concepts like hope and expectation. Lewis makes no apologies for the fact he was thinking football and football alone. He wanted a scholarship to an American college, a dream that is close to being realised. "Everyone says I should have gone to uni, should have gone to get a job, school is school. It's one year. We all choose our lives and our paths, and this is what I chose," he says. The team's goals for the year were to win the premier league, Auckland's knockout cup, and the national championship. None of those goals eventuated - the team came third in the premier league, and seventh at nationals. There were other disappointments. Christopher said while the programme was considered successful, it wasn't an academic utopia. Some of the students had lower attendance than expected, and some did not complete assessments. "We are looking to introduce a mandatory 95 per cent attendance rate next year," he says. Three of the 'Repeaters' have caught the eye of top Auckland clubs and will be joining next season. Others are moving on to tertiary courses. "For me, last year I only got 30 credits so the main thing was to pass so I could go on," said Chrisanto Carvalho, who plans to study accounting next year. "I came here in Year 9 to a place that wasn't that sporty, and then would go to club games and hear boys talk about how great their school is. I thought, why can't Roskill be the same? "I had to win. That's all I think about is just winning. I did not repeat to lose." Yet the heart of the issue remains debatable: when kids forego a year of their fast-unfolding life to play school sport, unbalancing the competition in the process, does anybody win? * This feature is one of a three-part multimedia series on the phenomenon of school sport that will run early next year. If you have any stories of school sport, it's highs or lows, contact either kirsty.johnston@nzherald.co.nz or dylan.cleaver@nzherald.co.nz