Sport can be a great leveler with everybody having an equal opportunity to excel. You only have to look at the success of Kenya’s runners to see this in action. They all come from poor rural backgrounds and run barefoot.
But of course, running is the most accessible sport in the world that doesn’t require expensive training venues. You don’t need specialist equipment, just a pair of legs and the will to win. The will to win; surely that’s the most important thing isn’t it? After all, if you have the will to win you can become good at any sport you choose, even go on to win Olympic gold, can’t you?
Well, it all depends.
In the 2012 London Olympics Team GB won 65 medals, 29 of them gold. The medalists came from all over Britain, from all sorts of backgrounds but over a third (36%) of the medal winners were from private schools. But in the UK, private schools educate only 7% of the population. It seems that what we’ve always known about MPs is just as true for Olympic medalists. If you go to a fee-paying school you have a better chance of winning.
But why should this be? Surely sport is accessible to everyone? Well, yes and no. Some sports are more accessible than others. Everyone can take themselves off to the local park and run or play football, but just how many can afford the cost of buying and keeping a horse for a child who dreams of becoming an Olympic equestrian champion?
Gold-medal winning athletes Jessica Ennis (Heptathlon), Mo Farah (Distance Running) and Greg Rutherford (Long Jump) were all state-educated. As were every single one of the boxers along with all but 1 of the 12 medal-winning cyclists in the 2012 Team GB. Field events, boxing, cycling – all sports that require dedication and the right facilities, but sports where a state-educated child has at least some chance to begin to develop his or her skills at school.
It’s the ‘higher end’, some might say ‘elite’, sports, where cost and the right conditions play a big factor and where private schools seem to dominate. Sports like tennis, sailing, equestrian, shooting and of course rowing; where more than half of our winning gold medallists were privately educated. Less than a third coming from state comprehensive schools and the rest from grammars.
Wholly unacceptable and one of the worst statistics in British sport.
Even so, it was an improvement on Beijing four years earlier, where over half of Team GB’s gold medallists were privately educated. This caused Lord Moynihan, the chairman of the British Olympic Association, to declare the situation “wholly unacceptable” and “one of the worst statistics in British sport”.
In the past, sports were leisure time activities that few working men could afford. And let’s not forget working life began at twelve years of age back in 1908 when the first London Olympics were staged. In 1908 nearly all of the UK’s 146 medal winners were privately educated.
So, just why is there such a divide between public school and state-funded sport achievements? Perhaps Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Sutton Trust, a public mobility charity, hit a few hard nails on the head when he said recently:
“While we congratulate all our Olympic winners, this research shows that independent school students are more than five times over-represented amongst our medal winners relative to their proportion in the population.
“Which is also the case at leading universities and in the professions more generally.
“This comes as no surprise as children in independent schools benefit from ample time set aside for sport, excellent sporting facilities, and highly qualified coaches, while in many state schools sport is not a priority, and sadly playing fields have been sold off.”
Public expectation is very different from 100 years ago. Back then there was an expectation that ‘gentlemen’ would be good at games. These days, in our diverse and integrated society, the expectation is that everyone should be able to achieve at the highest level. Suddenly our public school educated politicians are calling for sport to become a more accurate reflection of society.
Boris Johnson, the former London mayor, said he wanted to see pupils emulating the two hours a day of sport he enjoyed at Eton. Former Prime Minister, David Cameron, announced plans to place competitive team sport onto the primary school curriculum. It is now actively encouraged that children take part in ‘recognised’ such as football, hockey, and netball.
Whether or not that had any real effect is debatable. However, by Rio 2016, Team GB was back in full swing bringing home 67 medals, two more than in London four years earlier.
The percentage of those medalists attending private schools had also dropped by 4% from 2012. And in an interesting statistic, ten of the 13 British representatives to win more than one medal were state-educated, including gold-winning Olympians Mo Farah and Adam Peaty.
In some schools, PE has been replaced by dance and community-based activities
But there is still much more to do. Much of the issue has been caused by state school attitudes towards competitive sport. Since the late seventies, there has been a growing movement in the state education system against competitiveness generally. And the days of cross-country running, games, and even gym based PE have all but disappeared. In some schools, PE has been replaced by dance and community-based activities.
A lot of parents aren’t helping either. In an age of obese children and inactivity through computer gaming, PE remains compulsory in state schools until the age of 16. But every year, more and more parents complain to their children’s schools about PE, believing that their children shouldn’t have to participate in physical activity if they don’t want to.
And even if state schools wanted to compete it would be hard against a private school like Millfield in Somerset, a £10,000 per term boarding school, which seems to specialise in creating Olympic athletes.
Two of the 2012 Team GB gold medal winners and seven other competitors were educated at Millfield. It was the highest represented British school at the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, with the nine representatives across seven sports. Millfield has its own equestrian centre, 13 tennis courts, a state of the art pool, an athletics arena, and has coached London Olympic competitors in shooting, swimming, shot-put and fencing. The school has been represented at every Olympic Games since 1956, boasting a total of 54 Olympic athletes among its boys and girls.
Conversely, Sue Campbell, the chairman of UK Sport, said that it was often luck if talented children at state schools became top athletes. She said:
“State schools might have a PE teacher but they don’t have someone to manage the after school opportunities, to hire some coaches, to organize the inter-school sport that is what is missing in state schools.
“This means athletes from state schools get there by happen chance.
“They happen to chance upon a coach and a sport where they are given good coaching, whereas the independent schools have structured, clear pathways and quality coaching.”
With a background of the selling off school sports fields, lack of interest in competitive sports by teachers, parents, and children alike, the high cost of some of the more specialist sports, and the ‘happen chance’ management of potential stars, can the State and Private playing fields ever be truly level?