History Lessons

Level Partnerships was established in 2009 to help create a more level playing-field in society, through brokering partnerships across sectors such as sport and education.

In particular, we believe that partnerships between the more influential and those who seem relatively powerless can make a difference to individuals, communities and society as a whole. Subtle changes can work wonders. The five lines on the playing-field of our logo are of equal length but can look different if arrow-heads point outwards or inwards. With just a little rearrangement, the arrows turn, as demonstrated on our home-page, to spell out l ε v ε l. In real life, it often only takes a slight realignment of partnership-working to bring to the fore some latent potential.

It is an honour, therefore, to be working with various organisations in Oxford, such as Vincent’s Club on the cusp of its 150th anniversary year, with so many Olympian champions in its membership and such a commitment today to engaging with young people from all backgrounds. Not only Vincent’s members but also women Blues, whose society is called Atalanta’s, and other sportsmen and sportswomen among Oxford’s alumni have created opportunities in diverse communities.

For example, Arnold Hills played football and competed in athletics as a student in Oxford in the 1870s. He went on to become a successful industrialist and entrepreneur, the owner of the Thames Ironworks Company and a shipbuilder. After some union trouble, his record as a benevolent employer included profit-sharing and good fellowship schemes as well as creating works teams. The football works team he created is now known as West Ham United, one of the clubs seeking to use the Olympic stadium as part of the legacy of the Games.

Arnold Hills was a Christian, one of the founding fathers of vegetarianism, a lifelong teetotaller, a creator of cycling and athletic clubs & tracks, a pioneer of floodlit football, an England international in football and, in athletics, the English national mile and three mile champion. He knew Gandhi through the London Vegetarian society but they fell out as Gandhi found Hills a little over-zealous and puritanical.

His advice to his football team on becoming teetotal did not work. His advice to the players on wider matters, however, is relevant to team sports, and community partnerships, today: ‘As an old footballer myself, I would say, get into good condition at the beginning of the season, keep on the ball, play an unselfish game, pay heed to your captain, and whatever the fortunes of the first half of the game, never despair of winning, and never give up doing your very best to the last minute of the match.’

One of the most encouraging aspects of the historic victory of Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky in this month’s Tour de France has been the way in which the history of community engagement through cycling tracks, velodromes and clubs has been recognised. Arnold Hills was an outstanding sportsman whose commitment to cycling, football and athletics is continuing to make a difference a century after his various initiatives. His voluntary service to the wider community is a good model for the Big Society.

To give another example, I have just returned from a week in Bangladesh where it is inspiring to see the enthusiasm, in a country with the seventh largest population in the world, for working in partnership with British people of Bangladeshi origins or descent who wish to create more educational opportunities in the country of their, or their parents’, origins.

The Bangladeshi community in the United Kingdom has many entrepreneurs who have taken risks, achieved success and are sharing their wealth with those who have not had such opportunities. Although Bengali sailors have settled in the UK in successive waves for centuries, the second half of the nineteenth century saw a particularly strong tendency for some to stay in London when the ships servicing the East India Company were returning to what was then India.

Once more, the commitment shown by their descendants and new waves of immigrants to contribute to communities here and in Bangladesh is an exemplary forerunner of the Big Society at its best. Instead of imagining that new partnerships can best emerge from ignoring the past, it transpires that understanding the past can be the catalyst to action.

In our projects, then, we often find ourselves researching the same period. To understand opportunities of partnership-working today, it is often desirable to go back to the nineteenth century, or earlier. So it is with the Olympics, that we are learning about the revival of the Games in Athens 1896, the ways in which Baron de Coubertin took inspiration before that from English public schools and universities, together with the Much Wenlock Games of earlier centuries, as well, of course, as the classical origins of the Olympics some 2,800 years ago.  Similarly, the legacy of this summer’s Olympics and Paralympics is not just to be found in the remarkable regeneration of East London but in the know-how of partnership-working that will be passed to future generations.

Z-A of Oxford Sport

Today is the release date for The Z to A of Oxford Sport. It can be downloaded chapter by chapter or as a whole, or bought as a set of CDs, from this link:


The research behind this project is an example of Level’s approach to promoting sporting partnerships. It is important to understand the history of an institution or a community if its talents are to be released in collaborative ventures.

Whether it is the release of an audiobook or of the combined talents of a partnership, Level are committed to connecting those with significant influence to those who deserve a more level playing-field in society. In the coming months, therefore, I intend to explore not only some of the characters mentioned in the Z to A but how sporting partnerships can make a difference in Oxford and beyond.