What’s the saddest statistic in sport? Sorry to dampen the mood, but Lord Moynihan can’t be far off when he said it is that in Beijing 2008, 50% of our Olympic medals came from just 7% of our school population – privately educated athletes.
Plenty of sports are not ‘posh’ – boxing in particular often provides a road to glory for some of the most disenfranchised. It would also be interesting to know how many athletes had left state education to accept a scholarship at a private school specifically to concentrate on their sport in a specialist environment (as at Millfield School). But regardless, that statistic and that rich pool of wasted talent in the remaining 93% cannot be ignored.
But I fear that Lord Moynihan’s solution may be too narrow. Yes, we need more focus on sport in schools – many schools that have introduced boxing attest to resulting academic and behaviour improvements. Schools need better engagement with local clubs, and better talent spotting – groups like ‘Sport Inspired’ help and I’m hoping Government focus on this will pay off.
We must also get cleverer about funding facilities: The Football Foundation successfully enables communities to ‘own’ their new facilities, but more can be done to use profitable areas of sport (eg. five-a-side football) to cross-subsidise the unprofitable, and enable community social enterprises to run their facilities effectively.
Yes, all must be done. But this damning statistic was after 10 years of Labour’s lavish spending on schools and suggests that if we concentrate on facilities alone, we will not identify, let alone tackle, the deeper roots of the problem.
Consider this: private school representation in elite sport is actually only in line with private school representation in other highly competitive careers. Sutton Trust research suggests that our 7% privately educated population accounts for around 50% of our medics and journalists, 60% of bankers and Cabinet members, and over 70% of our judiciary. It seems that in the field of competition, whether academic or sporting, the state sector is underperforming. Why?
It may be that the state sector as a whole (and there are many fantastic state schools where none of this applies) does not grasp the basic truths of competition as well as the private sector: The brutal fact is that the truths about hard work and reward, winning and losing, dealing with success and rising above failure, which we all accept on our screens as fundamental to the Olympics, also apply to life in general – where they become far more politically controversial.
The first truth is what my swimming coach called “No pain, no gain”. You are not ‘entitled’ to a gold medal, any more than you are entitled to that job, or exam result. You need to work hard and put in effort to get the reward. But we have subtly moved to an expectation of ‘deserving’. We have mislead young people into thinking dreaming a ‘dream’ is the same as having a ‘goal’. It is not. Dreaming hard won’t make you David Beckham. Working hard towards an identified goal just might. By suggesting young people are ‘entitled’ to things just because they want them, we are not only being dishonest, we are pulling away their understanding of the ladder of work and reward that they need to get there, and the self-esteem that comes from this kind of ownership of achievement.
The second is that whilst support is vital, you alone are responsible for your actions; we’ve all heard our athletes take utter responsibility for their performances, bad or good. As a swimmer I knew once you were on the block waiting for the gun – it was only you. Your mum, your coach, the cheering crowd can’t swim your race for you, and the state can’t live your life for you. Yes, children need support, but a culture that tells children they are ‘at risk’ from their own actions is not only destroying their vital sense of autonomy, identity and self-esteem, it is condemning them to underachievement.
The third truth has even become a taboo – failure. And I speak as one of the sporting losers. My life’s goal as a teenager was to swim in the Olympics. But despite hours of training and 4.30am starts, it became clear that however hard I worked I simply wasn’t good enough. I failed. But this didn’t mean I was a failure – finding and fulfilling the limits of my potential enabled me to celebrate the Olympic success of former rivals all the more. The reality of life is that not everyone can be the best. We all deal with some kind of failure, and can use failure to improve. Young people need to learn that being the best they can be is possible, and is like a personal gold medal. But if we aren’t honest about this in school, this cannot happen.
A state education culture where an expectation of exam re-sits could replace the real possibility of failure; pupils told all qualifications were of equal value in the outside world (which Gove is tackling) and the insidious idea that not doing well is immediately someone else’s fault: all fuel a lack of competition and ill-prepare children for the reality that outside the school gates, this is how the world works. Too often excellence is mocked – it’s appalling that Olympic prodigy Tom Daley was bullied at school – and all too often, so is academic achievement. In that climate, can we really expect the proliferation of excellence?
However, although the state sector could perhaps learn from the honesty of Olympic competition, it would be wrong simply to blame hard-pressed state schools. It’s not tales of school that Olympic athletes tell in victory, but an amazing parent – who took them training at silly o’clock, prepared packed breakfasts, and supported them through joy and distress. If proportionally fewer parents of state school pupils are this motivated for their children, this is surely the bigger issue.
The state sector’s under-representation in our Olympic medal tally at Beijing is perhaps more worrying than Lord Moynihan guessed – it may reveal a loss of understanding and traction with competition and achievement amongst swathes of our potentially productive nation – communities who, if they were individuals, may be diagnosed as clinically depressed.
Our national Olympic legacy must be to ‘get real’ and acknowledge the Olympic truths and value of sport that we accept on our televisions in every aspect of our national life – not only to improve the numbers of state school children achieving Olympic glory, but for nothing less than re-establishing Britain’s place high on the socio-economic podium of the competitive global stage.