Mental health: A rowing revolution

Written by: Phil Denton | Published:
Focused: Year 9 students from Sir Thomas Boteler School rowing to victory at the inaugural 2017 Warrington Schools’ Regatta (image supplied)

In a three-part series, Phil Denton considers the merits of a number of initiatives set-up to improve the mental health of our young people. In part one, he introduces the work of Ben Dunne, both via the River Reeves Foundation and Warrington Youth Rowing


When the Australian singer-songwriter Nick Cave lost his son, he talked about renegotiating his place in the world. Ben Dunne, one of the driving forces behind a quiet music and rowing revolution to aid mental health support for young people, speaks of a similar realisation following the loss of his son in February 2016.

Ben’s son, Rivers Reeves, was a member of up and coming band Viola Beach. The group, along with their manager, lost their lives following a car accident while they toured Sweden.

Ben describes the years following River’s death as a time when he and his wife Sharon, as parents, had to redefine what their purpose was in the world: “Returning to the life we knew and took for granted was never going to be an option.”

Ben was speaking on the eve of RivFest 2021, a Warrington-based music festival set-up to remember his son. Ben explained: “We both feel compelled and probably always will to make sure River’s journey, his passion for life, his influence, wasn’t totally ended in Sweden five years ago. We know he’s gone and he can’t see things with us, but we want to make sure his spirit lives on through the work we do.”

With that purpose in mind, Ben has designed and implemented two programmes to encourage young people in the North West and beyond to take part in activities that grow a sense of wellbeing and strengthen self-esteem.

The great news is that as these programmes develop and grow you can get involved as well, either with your own family or with the students who attend your schools, wherever you are.

Team: Students from Padgate Academy showing off their new rowing tops (image supplied)


Rocking the boat

Ben first discovered rowing at university and the sport has shaped much of what he has done ever since, influencing his work with young people over the years.

He explained: “I managed to get into Durham University, more by luck than judgement, but when I arrived I fell into joining my college boat club. It changed my life.

“(Rowing) unlocked a sense of ambition that permeated into other aspects of my life. Having attended a state school and going into teaching myself, it seemed ludicrous to me that if this sport can really grow children’s self-esteem, wellbeing and wider ambition then why are there barriers to wider participation?

“This is a frustration I’ve always held onto. Rowing is seen by many, usually non-rowers, as an elitist sport, a sport enjoyed by ‘other people’.

From this acorn came Warrington Youth Rowing, a charity set up by Ben with Richard Sinnott, who himself literally brought rowing to Warrington when he set up a club on the banks of the Mersey in 1986. They are now looking to set up rowing hubs across the country. The model is simple, as Ben explained: “An empty boathouse, 10 schools close-by, headteachers keen to get their staff and more vulnerable students out on the water once a week.”

Ben continued: “I think we are really helping to make wider participation a reality. With so many rowing clubs sitting empty during the day, there is huge potential for young people, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds, and under-represented groups to enjoy rowing.

“With stronger club-school partnerships, it’s a win-win for everyone. Young people get fit, gain a stronger sense of self-esteem, becoming better and more committed learners. By strengthening grassroots rowing our rowing programmes will become more diverse over time, clubs will become more representative of their communities, and the disappointment of the Tokyo 2020 medal haul will be a thing of the past.”

The big vision is for 100 rowing clubs supporting 1,000 schools with 10,000 students rowing each week during the school day. “If we have 10,000 youngsters from disadvantaged backgrounds rowing each week, that surely will have a big influence on their life chances. And while this isn’t why we’re doing it, you may even get the odd Olympian out of the programme along the way!”

Across England, many young people enjoy the sport of rowing. However, of the 126 schools registered with British Rowing, only 20 are state secondary schools. With almost 4,200 secondary schools currently operating in England, this represents less than 0.5 per cent.

There are a growing number of initiatives like Warrington Youth Rowing which are actively looking to increase this number and broaden the reach and engagement of young people from communities historically under-represented in the sport across England.

Ben and the Warrington Youth Rowing team are now looking to build more hubs in areas across the country. To this end, Henley Royal Regatta Charitable Trust, London Youth Rowing and Warrington Youth Rowing have launched Rocking the boat, a new annual conference to discuss the future of grassroots rowing in the UK. This year, it is taking place on October 22 at Henley Rowing and River Museum (see further information or click here).

Before, during and after: The Padgate Academy rowing team push off, ready to compete at the Warrington Schools’ Regatta 2018. And the subsequent medal ceremony! (images supplied)


Rivers Reeves Foundation

In memory of Ben’s son River, the foundation set up in his name was created to give young people in the North West the chance to access bursaries of up to £500 to support their creative journeys in the arts.

Ben explained: “It has a huge impact on a young person when someone, outside of family, offers financial support. It builds belief. (The bursaries are) linked to education but not directly linked to it. As a foundation, we reach out to headteachers so they are aware of the support we can provide students.”

The bursary is only one part of the initiative. The foundation will shortly be moving its Vintage Viola charity boutique, set up by Sharon, into a large department store in Warrington town centre. In the new base, young people will have the opportunity to create art, music and other expressive forms. The centre will also have a barber’s shop and a larger vintage clothes store.

Once again, readers can contact Ben and the team to discuss the foundation, whether your school is close enough to be involved or whether you would just like to learn about the concept. Ben is very keen to expand the foundation's work nationwide: “This opportunity is so important for young people, especially those who are creative, to be given support and a platform. This is especially the case for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds or those who are suffering from mental health challenges. We are passionate about building ambitious partnerships with schools, local businesses and local authorities in order to provide the opportunities young people need to flourish.


A legacy

The heart-breaking story of River Reeves and Viola Beach is one which acts as an eternal flame to fuel the fire of these two incredible initiatives. As a school leader myself, I know that we are going to get as involved as we can in both the rowing programme and the River Reeves Foundation. We will look to get a hub set up in our area in conjunction with Ben and we will look to support our young artists to flourish in school and beyond.

As educators, we know that experiential learning can often be the key to improved mental health among young people. The work of these initiatives can support that learning and wider education. Do contact Ben if you are interested.

  • Phil Denton is headteacher of St Bede’s Catholic High School in Lancashire. Read his previous articles for SecEd at http://bit.ly/seced-denton


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