Saracens and England winger Chris Ashton will help Barnet’s next generation of rugby stars maintain a balance of sport and study by joining up with a national education project.

Ashton, who has 34 caps for his country, is linking up with Virtual Learning UK (VLUK) which offers sports-based education programmes for young people.

The two-year programme offers a BTEC National Extended Diploma in Sport that combines rugby training with an academic curriculum, giving 16 to 18-year-olds the chance to earn an academic degree and coaching qualifications.

Ashton came through the youth set-up at rugby league side Wigan Warriors and says he knows only too well the strain that a commitment to rugby can put on education.

“It’s about combining rugby with learning,” said Ashton at the project’s launch held at Allianz Park in Barnet. “It’s something that I struggled with when I was a teenager going into college.

“I was always distracted. At night we always had to train at night at Wigan and the aim was always to get into the first team who trained during the day.

“Sometimes you got invited to that so college ended up being just something you put on the side.

“A course like this where you can do both – you get the learning and the rugby as well - I don’t see how it can work any better.”

Ashton will provide personal insight into areas such as nutrition, preparation and recovery to help students with certain modules of their course.

The England winger is delighted to be part of the project and believes in the importance of young sportsmen and women keeping their options open.

“There were ten of us at Wigan and playing at the academy there and only me and [Saracens teammate] Joel Tomkins really made it through,” Ashton said.

“Only about one gets through every year and that’s not many when you see all those people who put so much time into it at the expense of their work.

“If you don’t make it, you’re suffering, you have to go back and do the extra work on top and that’s just creating hassle for yourself.

“To do them both together is great and I think one does compliment the other.”

He added: “Most clubs are very focused on their sport whether it be rugby or football or whatever and it shouldn’t be like that because only a very small minority get through.”

Ashton is eager to incorporate the four pillars at Saracens – Discipline, Honesty, Work Rate and Humility – into the students’ learning and VLUK director Craig Beecham believes the rugby star’s input will prove invaluable.

“You ask an average man in the street who do you know from the England team? And a lot of people would only know one guy and it’s Chris Ashton,” Beecham said.

“That’s one of the reasons why we wanted to work with him but also because of his demeanour, the way he is with people – he’s from a very good solid background and he understands how important education is to young people.”

VLUK already works with clubs in football, cricket and rugby league and Ashton’s role with the programme begins in September.

“The beauty of working with Chris as a professional is there are a number of different units in the course and Chris can talk about being a professional as it really is,” Beecham continued.

“We can then adapt our education programme so students can draw upon his expertise and get an up to date and current knowledge of what is happening in professional rugby.

“The education part is just as important as the rugby part. You can play rugby to a certain age but then you need something to fall back on and Chris can help with that.”

For more information on the programme visit