Take your marks, get set, blame someone

I’m wondering in how many other countries is the news of another Olympic gold medal almost instantly followed by a Tweet letting you know if the winner was educated in the state or independent sector. I suspect that it is a typically British response.

So, it appears that (currently) a greater proportion of our medal winners come from Independent schools than we would expect if they were winning in proportion to their numbers. It doesn’t come as a surprise that some are using this as another stick to beat the maintained sector. Nor does it come as a surprise that others are using it as a stick to beat the government over spending on sport. Perhaps it is only the British who can take a cause for national celebration and use it as a stick to beat itself with.

The Golden Girls

And of course the discussion soon becomes polarised and we lose any value from having a conversation around the many valid points that the statistical fact highlights. What follows is a brain dump of the relevant points as they come to me when I think about this differential. There is no coherent argument below, so don’t go looking for one.

  1. Average independent (day) school fees are around £10,000 per annum. Average maintained sector income per student is around £4,000. That difference probably accounts for some part of the statistic.
  2. Many independent schools offer sports scholarships for promising athletes. This probably also helps.
  3. Many independent schools take boarders. It would be interesting to see how many of the independent school medal winners were boarders rather than day pupils.
  4. My sense (and it is one that comes from a maintained sector education and teaching background) that there is a greater emphasis placed on the benefits of sporting endeavour to all students (not just the successful ones) in the independent sector than you generally see in maintained schools.
  5. The “lack of competitive sports in maintained schools” war cry is, in my experience, a complete red herring. There was a time around 30 years ago, where a minority of (predominantly primary) schools adopted a no competitive sports approach. That time has gone, and I suspect that it was a bigger issue for a longer period of time in the Daily Mail editorial offices than actually ever was in schools. I am sure that there are many who can point to examples of it still, but they are anecdote, not data.
  6. The Olympic Rowing facility belongs to Eton College. There is a community access programme but you would expect that pupils at Eton probably have better access than most. And that probably benefits them. Although I suspect that they haven’t won as many as you would expect given the facilities (perhaps they should be beating themselves with a stick).
  7. The scarcer resources in maintained schools tend to lead to those resources being used on a smaller pool of students. This can lead to the exclusion of many from organised (non-curriculum) sports. This is not a criticism of anyone, just a consequence of there being less resource. One PE teacher can’t run an after school club for 100 kids. So where an independent school might have a 1st, 2nd and 3rd eleven, the maintained school can only maintain (sorry) a 1st team. This loses the internal competitiveness required to produce great teams.
  8. Many of the medalists just happened to go to independent school. They became great because of the local clubs they went to. Of course this is also linked to their school. For example, the nearest rowing to me as a child was Vicky Park boating lake which explains my lack of a medal. Many of the best sports clubs are linked geographically or socially to specific communities.
  9. Many of the sports we have won require equipment (e.g. a boat, or a good bike, or a horse), which of course requires money. I’m sure if you looked at the statistics then there would be a greater than expected percentage of horse ownership in the independent sector than in the maintained. There will be some who try to explain patiently to me that there are many ways to get into horse riding that don’t cost money, but, like, really? And see point 8.
  10. Sporting greatness requires confidence. For some (many?) reasons Independent schools find it easier to help instil this in their students than does the maintained. Of course, it is always going to be easier to instil confidence in someone who is going to get a Porsche for passing their A-levels than it is in the student who has to go out to work rather than take A-levels. But there is something there that they do that needs to be looked at and understood by the maintained sector. Just saying that they are rich kids so they are confident anyway is not the whole story here.

Some of the above points aren’t going to change. The money one is going to stay much the same for a long time and it clearly has an impact. So to that extent those using the medal differential to beat the maintained sector can take a running jump (do you see what I did there?).

However, notwithstanding all the above, I do also think there are questions here for the maintained sector to consider about the emphasis they put on sport and non-academic personal development. I feel that there is sometimes a fear that the time and resources that would need to be taken away from them would not pay back sufficiently into the academic endeavours of the students. Would taking 10% from the traditional curriculum budget and applying it to sports development in the the school improve student outcomes? I think it possibly would, but what head teacher or governing body is going to risk it in the current climate? Not many.

This issue is a complex manifestation of our wealth/class/political system so there is no glib answer. Personally, I think to take a side and stick to it is the easiest mistake to make here. Perhaps it being about sport rather than Maths or English might enable everyone to adopt less entrenched positions than they might traditionally take when the educational discussion turns to the independent/maintained divide.