Coffee House

How state schools can boost their Olympic chances

3 August 2012

3:00 PM

3 August 2012

3:00 PM

Lord Moynihan’s comments about the dominance of private school athletes in Team GB have caused a stir.  He suggests that  the fact that half of our medals in Beijing were won by athletes who attended fee paying schools is ‘one of the worst statistics in sport’.

He’s right and it’s worrying.  But rather than hand-wringing and suggesting the imposition of quotas, we should be asking what independent schools are doing well and what state schools aren’t.  We should be celebrating our medallist and their incredible achievements, whilst also asking what state schools can do to improve the statistics that Lord Moynihan found so shocking.

If you analyse the statistics in greater detail, you would find that around 20 per cent of this year’s GB Olympic team went to private school, but, in 2008 they represented around half of the medallists.  In other words, independent schools are much better at producing athletes who go on to the very top of their sport. Great sportsmen, from Sebastian Coe to Bradley Wiggins, would point to one of the crucial difference between a good athlete and a champion – strength of character and an absolute will to win.

Independent schools do much more than state schools to use sport in character development.  They also encourage competitive sport as a key part of the curriculum.  To many independent schools, success in sport is at least as important as academic success.  And having sport as a central part of the educational ethos of a school simply hasn’t happened in state schools in the past few years.

State schools have marginalised competitive sport over recent decades and don’t see sport as playing a big role in creating strong characters and a desire to succeed.  From the sale of 5,000 school playing fields between 1979-1997 (ironically on Lord Moynihan’s watch), through cutbacks in sports like boxing and cricket in state schools,  to a gradual erosion in competitive sport – in 2005, fewer than 10 per cent of state schools played competitive cricket – it’s pretty clear why state schools have dropped behind independent schools in the Olympic medal table.  Put simply, ‘all must have prizes’ is not a philosophy that is likely to promote single-minded Olympic winners.


There have, of course been plenty of brilliant champions who have emerged from state schools.  When I was at a comprehensive school in the North East, I used to play cricket against Paul Collingwood, who played for a nearby comprehensive.  Bradley Wiggins, of course, went to a comprehensive in Kilburn.  But  many of our successful state school athletes say that they gained their determination, will to win and competitive instinct from local sports clubs and from a strong sporting family, rather than from their school.

State schools have been wrong to underestimate the importance of competitive sport in schools. Excellent sport in state schools isn’t just about producing first-class athletes, who can compete on the Olympic stage, it’s also crucially important in producing well rounded and strong characters. In so many ways, a school sport policy is also a health policy, an education policy, a community cohesion policy and a crime fighting policy.

Pupils who participate in sport regularly are more likely to succeed academically.  Sport teaches valuable and important life skills – teaching young people about discipline, focus,  teamwork and harnessing competitive instincts.  School sport can raise pupils’ self confidence and gives some young people a real sense of determination to succeed.

Sports like boxing, still taught in private schools, but virtually absent from the state sector, can also be crucial in channelling aggression and providing a real focus.  Simon Marcus’s tremendous boxing academy in Tottenham is a great example of how sport can turn around people’s lives and there’s no reason why state schools can’t also use the power of sport to enhance educational and social outcomes.

Whilst elements of the state sector have been backtracking on competitive sport, the rise of academies and free schools provides a unique opportunity to put competitive sport back at the heart of the school curriculum. Five of the Harris academies have an explicit focus on sport – acknowledging the powerful beneficial effect that school sport can have on educational performance.  Indeed, some of the Harris academies have made the welcome decision to reintroduce boxing to the curriculum. Whilst local education authorities have grown wary of competitive sport and the character building effects of sport in schools, many academies and free schools have embraced it.  And that has to be welcomed.

Some academies have also built strong links with local sports clubs – giving them access to excellent facilities and first class coaching, as well as providing young people with the opportunity to pursue their passion for sport outside of school hours.  Building networks with nearby clubs also gives pupils a much wider variety of sports to choose from.  It’s a model that all schools in the state sector should embrace.

Rather than attacking independent schools for producing successful athletes, the state sector should be thinking about how it can replicate their success. By embracing competitive sport and working with local sports clubs, state schools can boost their performance academically and help to create strong, well rounded characters.  It would also mean more success for state school pupils on the global stage and a further boost to our medal haul in the 2016 Olympics in Rio.

David Skelton is deputy director of Policy Exchange.

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Show comments
  • frankch

    A random web-site sample of sports results of independant schools suggests few compete against state sector schools.
    Notably the ethos of the former is often emphasised and the range of sport types and facilities offered generally very impressive.
    Nevertheles some state sector schools are cabable of challenging competively in selected sports at this level.
    Perhaps the UK sports bodies in particular could help encourage/forge better sporting links between the two sectors to the national benefit.

  • Perspective

    As a school governor, I can say that a contributing problem in this instance is the emphasis on children achieving particular results in national tests, and the fact that this reflects on a school’s OFSTED rating. Unintentionally, this has pushed many schools to cut back the hours for any subjects that are not evaluated in the tests, and PE is often the first to go.

  • George Laird

    Dear All

    As a humble Glaswegian pottering about the place, I know a
    bit about sport, in a previous life I was a fitness instructor.

    I taught at university and elsewhere, some of my pupils went onto
    Olympic, international and national competition.

    What makes people good?

    Specifically trained in their areas of expertise.

    I used to teach weight training, and I was brilliant, I know
    I know someone is bound to say he probably wasn’t that good.

    I was brilliant, trust me on that score, 95% and 92% in written exams plus taught half my YMCA class to pass the practical. At the oral exam it was so easy, couple of questions then thanks a lot, others got a real grilling, so I was told by a sports science student from the same uni as me.
    In one class we had to analyse training routines, I wrote my group’s programme and torn apart someone else, at the end of the lesson the instructors thank me, saying they couldn’t have did what I had done but as I was a ‘pupil’ they thought everyone would find my take interesting.
    I didn’t volunteer to analyse and was kinda bounced into it, still a job’s a job, and I was a professional. So I started asking questions and then explained why it didn’t work. Weight training is very logical once you click into it.

    My students taught the staff of the uni sports building how to
    do weight training and improve their gym layout.

    They were actively sought out.

    One guy I taught was a sports medicine student who wanted to be
    an air force pilot, so off he went for some kind of selection process. When he
    was there he was approached by the PT staff who thought he was there to sign up
    for their crowd when they saw him train in the gym.

    He said their face was a picture when he told them pilot

    A George Laird pupil, yes, in my youth I was brilliant.

    One girl was Kate MacKenzie who ended up rowing at Atlanta and Sydney,
    taught weight training by me. Not the best I ever taught, you can google her and she is on Facebook.

    The problem with State schools is a drive to the bottom, a lack of ambition, the facilities are crap and the staff apathetic, geared
    to the lowest common dominator.

    I approached teaching in a different way, it became clear to
    me that not only should a person be taught the discipline; they had to learn to
    teach the discipline.

    That way a multitude of things happen all at once, they get
    technically better, they get physically better, they learn to focus and they
    impart knowledge thereby widening the community.

    As I said, in my youth I was brilliant.

    It isn’t surprising that private school pupils go on to play
    such a big part in the Olympics, poor kids are effectively shut out of
    opportunities. Sadly many people in sport think that ‘new’ means world class,
    it doesn’t, it just means new and generally the facilities are run by people
    who are clueless at what is being taught in it.
    My uni experience over decades.

    Again, the race to the bottom, if you provide real world
    class facilities tailored for the elite, everyone can use them, if you go the
    way of the lowest common denominator such as adopt in sports centres you are
    left to sink or swim.
    Hence many people drop out through lack of encouragement
    and teaching.

    I taught for many years, my reward was to be treated

    People are taking legacy but the legacy isn’t the buildings
    but the people, in a typical gym which I am sure most people have been to at
    some point; the instructor is treated little better than a cleaner who does

    I never done cleaning as a fitness instructor, I purely
    taught the art and it wasn’t a democracy, if you didn’t toe the line you got
    the boot, you can’t teach a rabble and I wasn’t there for their entertainment.

    Most athletes know what a coach is, their word is law. From that come
    discipline, trust and performance, many of my bods ended up doing very well, one
    even got top of his year in dentistry.

    If someone wants to be the greatest, that requires someone
    or group to make them the greatest and that costs money. The benefits to
    society far outweigh the costs in many spheres, sport gives people purpose and
    direction; it makes them better citizens, taught properly.

    In my youth at Glasgow
    University, I trained the
    elite, because I made the elite which was something well beyond the
    ability of others there at the same time as me.
    And I did it for free.

    Finally, I have to say this story, one day I walked passed a
    training partner who was talking to a Scottish National female rower and female PhD
    student, the both part of the uni female rowing club.
    The PhD said to my
    training partner doing Vet Medicine; ‘he thinks he runs this place’. To which
    my friend said, ‘he does’. Apparently that didn’t go down too well since I was never a member of the university clique.

    I had the loyalty and respect of the gym bar the

    Yours sincerely

    George Laird

    The Campaign for Human Rights at Glasgow University

  • Gary Wintle
  • Gary Wintle

    Andy Murray, Bradley Wiggins, Helen Glover, Victoria Pendleton, Jessica Ennis, Greg Rutherford and Mo Farah all went to state schools.
    So much of the arguments here are pish.

  • Gary

    Gove has CUT school sports funding, instead pouring taxpayers money into nonsense like creationist schools and Latin (utterly useless in the modern world).
    Let’s wind the clocks back, Tories sold off most school sport facilities. That’s irreversible now, because the space where those facilities were is covered in houses, supermarkets, and car parks.
    Add to that the paranoid control freak parents who won’t allow their children to do anything themselves, meaning they go into adulthood unable to do anything themselves, and you have a disaster.

  • Prams ton

    A lot of the sports GB does well in require sizeable amounts of money to compete in, that’s why only first world countries really tend to compete in them. It’s as much about money as ethos and opportunity and it’s not simply a case of private schools providing a more competitive environment (although they do).

  • 2trueblue

    Instead of indulging in bashing what one considers to be ‘the other side’ just get the young out there and get on with it. What has been amazing is watching the pride of the country in the achievements of the athletes. That is the prize, enjoy it and be proud. The greatest legacy of this olympics will be the effect on the health of the nation. Enjoy that and look to the positive rather than getting political. Listening to those who achieved medals has been inspiring. These people have worked for years and the support from their families and communities is an inspiration, look to that, and take advantage of the moment. We need

  • TomTom

    Make PE a morning activity and Sport an afternoon activity to keep them tired and build proper sport facilities and school leagues – not difficult.

  • Dogsnob

    Difficult but it can be done. Knock down the Barratt homes that have been built on the playing fields, then buy some grass seed. Then ship in some sports acheivers and sack the divvies who make kids sit down in class and write essays on sports. Sorry but I’ve had a few.

  • Hexhamgeezer

    The easy solution is to give state school athletes an ‘allowance’ dependent on what their event is. For example a 100metre runner would be given an allowance of, say 1.5 seconds to overcome their handicap when up against a public school runner. The public school guy would have to run over 1.5 seconds faster to win the event when up against state school competitors to compensate for the advantages he/she has.
    The only problem I can see is when that state competitor has to face international competition. Perhaps the UN could come in and decide the handicaps for each event and each competitor so as to create a ‘level playing field’. This would solve at a stroke the hideous results of that right wing thing we call Life.

  • Mudplugger

    Time for a parallel compaign to address the under-representation of private school pupils in Premier League Football ?

  • Inkerman

    Whilst agreeing with all those bemoaning the condition of state school sport, it is poor, my sons grammar school (state its true, but not really), can play B teams against the local comps (even the sport colleges) and win easily.

    One should remember that good sports people can often win or be offered scholarships to private schools so the percent figure is not what it seems.

    Oh, and anyone who thinks poor families don’t trek all over to support their kids is very out of touch with working people.

    • Gary

      Its not possible for poor families to support their children’s sporting ambitions. They don’t have the time or the money. How can they “trek all over” with Britain’s third-world, massively overpriced public transport system

  • Daniel Maris

    Where is the evidence that boxing “channels aggression”. Nearly every professional boxer of note has been prosecuted for very serious crimes such as murder, attempted murder, rape, GBH and similar. And those are just the ones we know about.

    • Hexhamgeezer

      Utter tripe, Danny boy. There are obviously many examples of what you say, but for every one you care to put up there is one who hasn’t. Instead of ‘nearly all’ why not just say ‘lots’. I could start off with the most noted boxer of all for instance.
      While its true to say that there aren’t many boxers (to my knowledge) working in the fields of wind power and cold fusion research, there are many examples of boxing instilling discipline aned respect into folk who were previously bad ‘uns.

  • Tom Davies

    Should state schools be encouraging elite performers or looking to increase participation in sport? With restricted funding, it can’t really work both ways and physical education in it’s current form does neither. PE teachers are not professional coaches in their sports. Agreed that more is needed to raise the profile of sports , but ultimately it is a question of funding.

    • Gary

      PE teachers have an average IQ of 10.

  • Fergus Pickering

    Is somebody seriously suggesting quotas? I can’t believe they are. State schools don’t bloody PLAY sport most of the time. Nor do they encourage music, drama or anything that isn’t examined. I spent my last year in school playing cricket, acting in plays and painting posters. And a bloody good time I had of it. The school was a state school but that was more than fifty years ago before the effing lefties got at the whole system.

  • Adrian Drummond

    Which government was responsible for selling off school playing-fields to property developers?

    • Gary

      The Tories, as ever acting in the interests of their corporate donors.

  • alexsandr

    I have read the comments so far and they are basically right. It is the etos of state schools that is wrong

    Buts also with a narrower and narrower curriculum, imposed from whitehall, that has driven sport (and music) from the schools.

    and teachers dont have time due to the time they have to do doing marking and planning they don’t have the time for extra curricular activties.

    • razzysmum

      Teachers have ALWAYS spent time marking and planning… they did so when I was at school in the 50s but they STILL had sport as a fixture and even though I wasn’t good at sport it I learned the ‘team’ spirit and the exercise was damn good for us. We had a sports mistress who took sport and exercise classes even though it was a back-street city school the education would knock spots off many schools now. Teachers were well trained and DEDICATED… that made the difference.

  • Kevin

    “and an absolute will to win”

    I would disagree with the tone of that comment. In football terms, that kind of attitude can lead to hacking, diving and shirt-pulling. If you play in a sportsmanlike manner, and with an obvious love of the game, you will still be remembered by fans – like France in the ’82 World Cup.

    • razzysmum

      hacking, diving and shirt-pulling????
      That belongs to infantile players not the players who have a will to win.
      The will to do anything gives strength of purpose… teaches discipline… and makes for dedication. Someone like that wouldn’t risk being sent off the field for ‘shirt pulling’ because it would harm their future career.
      Only idiots behave like idiots…!!!

  • Johnnywas

    It’s not purely about the school the athlete attended. The likelihood, if you have attended a private school, is that your parents have money. Top athletes quite often have spent a lot of their own time practicing/training, using facilities that cost money. That’s what gives them the edge. It’s a similar reason why a larger number of people in successful musical careers now have a private school background. Access to facilities, equipment that requires money.

    • Coffeehousewall

      The Government spent £235 million on Olympic athletes preparing for the Beijing Olympics, and £320 million on Olympic athletes preparing for the London Olympics. That seems a very large amount of money to spend on a small number of people, who are supported according to their abilities. The reason fewer state school pupils excel is that they are not encouraged to excel. Where there is a will there is a way, and nowadays there is also a great deal of state funding.

      • TomTom

        and Gove cut £140 million from School Sport

        • TomTom

          sorry it was £162 million

  • Gerry Dorrian

    You’re absolutley right – as Bill Gates said, “prizes for all” just doesn’t work in real life; empirically it’s the equivalent of “last places for everyone”. The prizes for all mentality underlies the decimation of our playing fields. In Cambridge, when teachers went on strike, a big group of them gathered in Parkers’ Piece under the flag of mass murderer Che Guevara: that said it all.

  • In2minds

    Stuff sport, it’s seriously dull, how about more music in schools?

    • Robert_Eve

      What is wrong with both?

  • John_Page

    In discussing academic achievement it’s always possible to argue that public schools select. But there’s no reason why state school pupils should be any less talented in sport or music than public school students. The state schools’ shortfall in sports is almost entirely down to them setting low standards and embracing mediocrity.

    And the answer to this is NOT more money

    • TomTom

      There is no budget for school instruments and lots of unemployed Music graduates

      • John_Page

        Excuses excuses. Singing doesn’t need a budget. I’m not talking about preparing pupils for a music career, I’m talking about giving them experience and appreciation of classical music

    • Gary

      Nothing to do with the Tories selling off school sports facilities to their corporate friends, then?

      • John_Page

        And Labour, let’s stay balanced.

  • AdemAljo

    Moynihan is quite right to question why it is that so many of the top British athletes were/are privately educated and we all know why this is the case so I’m not going to repeat it. However, it is totally unacceptable for him to slander independent schools for nearly single-handedly maintaining such an enormous amount of dignity and actual, tangible achievement.

    The solution is in the article; look at the what the public schools do well and put state schools in such a position as to emulate public schools as closely as possible.

    Britain will be bloody unbeatable when this is implemented.

    • Gary

      The Tories sold off alot of the state school sports facilities, dumbo.

  • Coffeehousewall

    Sorry, why is this an appalling statistic? I can think of nothing more offensive than the narrow attitude displayed in this piece. I am more than happy that so many medals have been won by people who have put in the hard work to earn them. What an unpleasant opinion it is to denigrate their achievements just because they went to schools which have not been subverted over decades by the cultural marxism of the political class.

    Shame on you.

    • Halcyondaze2

      Why are so many of the posters on this blog better, sharper pithier writers than the columnists? They’re certainlty a lot more politically sound. Or is the Spectator going the way of everything else – everything filtered through the values of a tiny, left-leaning, London-centric clique?

      • Coffeehousewall

        Unfortunately the Spectator has ceased to employ conservative writers for quite a while, and to make things worse tends to turn to both left-wing writers, and Westminster gossip, to fill the gap.

        We have often asked to have a space for some of the better commenters here to post an occasional blog, but the authorities don’t want to allow free speech to conservatives.

      • Wilhelm

        I was thinking exactly the same, it’s a sad state of affairs when the posters do the investigative journalism instead of the media, for example.

        After watching the opening ceremony of the Olympics which was a Cultural Marxist propaganda extravaganza, a ” Triumph of the Will ” in a brainwashing celebration of multiculturalism and miscegenation.
        Danny Boyle worked closely on the opening with former members of the Revolutionary Communist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, plus Catherine Ugwu, a half cast, leftist, that explains the race mixing sequence.

        Also included in carrying the Olympic flag
        Muhammad Ali, male, black American: boxer, draft evader, and humanitarian activist.
        Daniel Barenboim, male, Israeli: an old-line leftist Israeli, of a type once common but made almost extinct by the perpetual, institutionalized Jew-hatred of the Muslim world.

        Sally Becker, female, Jewish-British: peace activist.
        Shami Chakrabarti, female, British of Bengali parents: Director of Britain’s National Council for Civil Liberties (equivalent to the ACLU).
        Leymah Gbowee, female, Liberian: peace activist.

        Haile Gebrselassie, male, Ethiopian: great long-distance runner from an exceedingly poor African country.

        Doreen Lawrence, female, black British: mother of homicide victim Stephen Lawrence (a sort of British Emmett Till).
        Ban Ki-moon, male, Korean: Secretary-General of the United Nations.
        Marina Silva, female, black Brazilian: green activist.

        • Gary

          Hey, what about Mo Farah, Olympic Gold medalist. Perhaps you’d prefer Mo went back to Mogadishu and Britain be stripped of his Gold medal.

          • Wilhelm


    • tellemachus

      As usual shoot the messenger
      My only grouse is that it is probably not the schools but the environment of the children that produces the wherewithall to fund the private schools
      ie it is not the schools but the obsessional mums with the resources and time to promote little Jonny

      • tele_machus

        Now I understand this poster, I can say without fear of contradiction that the opinions are such that reasonable posters can ignore.
        Please return to your UKIP FGM site

        • Nicholas

          Why should he or she? Who are you to demand that people return to this site or that? Why don’t you return to whatever red site you slithered out of to come here and harass every thread with your self-righteous, pompous slogans on behalf of the wretched left, the left who have done so much to ruin this country and to vex, disempower, oppress, destabilise, disenfranchise and abuse the indigenous ENGLISH people in it.

          From day one when you first appeared here you have laboured under the irritating delusion that you have the right to tell others how they should think and that your cruddy, predictable, proven-to-fail-oh-so-many-times politics should take precedence.

          • tele_machus

            Dear Nicholas
            If you scroll back to January 2011, you may see that telemachus emerged from another alterego which could be described as middle of the road Christian Britain (and who still posts here and on the new wall) in response to some serious Islamophobia appearing on the Wall. Some posters not a million miles from yourself threatened to sue(I have the means the time and the inclination) and telemachus himself became just a little more reasonable.
            You see you do have a purpose and are not just a right wing sloganer.

  • ButcombeMan

    It all starts in junior school.

    In some parts of the state system, teachers and heads are absolutely opposed to individual competition, with one child besting another-at almost anything.

    I have personal experience of grandchildren at a state junior school where this message applied.

    It is deeply cultural across large swathes of the teaching profession. It is political. It damages and impoverishes our kids. It helps make us, as a nation, uncompetitive in the world.

    It is the product of years of teachers and particularly those who gain headship, being mainly socialist or leftist in outlook. Heads of this persuasion are selected by an embedded cultural system believing “all must have prizes”. The culture spills over into children sneering at those who do well-in anything. There are no leaders, the system prevents their development. Personal aspiration is almost dissaproved of.

    That said other grandchildren are at a state school were fierce competition is


    If one was paying, which culture would the sensible parent choose?

    Hence the difference between state & independent. It has very little to do with selling off playing fields.

    Wiggo did not need playing fields.

    • AdemAljo

      The change in rules over teachers not requiring teaching qualifications will go a long way inasmuch as those teachers will embody the character-building traits a lot more closely than the unionised equality powerhouse that is currently trying to standardise every British child into some leftist, pseudo-egalitarian, underachieving, characterless zombie.

    • james102

      You also need to consider the increasing feminisation of
      teaching in state schools.

      What is the proportion of men to women teachers in the state
      sector compared to the private sector?

      • antijames

        That’s absurd, women have for a long time formed a larger proportion of teachers than men. Indeed traditionally it has been viewed as a more ‘female’ profession because of its nurturing aspects, and having been one of the professions that it was acceptable for women to enter in the early days of women being allowed into paid work.

    • ButcombeMan
      • Gary

        It was the Tories who csold off alot of school sports fields.

    • Gary Wintle

      So you think nothing should be done about the rampant bullying in UK schools? At the school I went to, bullying was rampant, and that was a school with a very heavy focus on its sports activities, headed by three PE teachers with a combined IQ of 3.
      Social hierarchies form in schools, where conformity is imposed ruthlessly, and nothing is done to prevent or destroy these hierarchies, which is why it might be better to do away with schools entirely.
      Britain’s education system has always been crap, and that’s because it teaches three things; conformity, submission, and apathy.

  • Halcyondaze2

    Whilst most metropolitan lefties will do all they can to bash the private school system (despite having benefitted from it immensely themselves and making damn sure that their own children get pride of place in these schools), it is simply the case that private schools do still stand for higher standards in both academics and sports. Whilst many have been infected by the long march of The Left (which is infliltrating all our institutions) – they have not yet been so infected by the “all must have prizes” mentality which has reduced most of our state schools to sinks of under-achievement, self-obsession and violence. Frankly, Lord Moynihan and his ilk would be far better off addressing the REAL issues destroying this country – and we all know what those are. But no – that would be way too brave. Let’s have another pop at the easy targets, shall we?

    • frankch

      By way of a rough comparison with the independent school
      sector my random web-site sample indicates that the sports ethos of the latter
      is greatly emphasised to prospective students (paying parents) and the range of
      sport types, facilities and coaching offered generally very impressive indeed.

      But unfortunately judging by the published sports results
      for the top tier of independents at least, few, if any compete against state
      sector schools.

      Presumably some state sector schools or groups are capable,
      maybe even keen to compete and challenge in selected sports at this level,
      especially if well focused on sports and properly resourced for the task, such
      as coupled with local sports clubs, gyms and centres that possess the necessary
      coaching expertise and financial incentives to cooperate.

      However patently communications between the two sectors
      appears to be underdeveloped – possibly across the subjects range, and unlikely
      to change without a kick-start.

      Perhaps the UK sports bodies should try harder to
      nudge/encourage/forge better sporting links and help generate the nessary
      resources needed to raise standards, and coaching for the majority of students,
      schools themselves, regions and ultimately national performance at the Rio
      2016. Olympics.

      But with evident longstanding mutual suspicions, fund sharing issues,
      entrenched attitudes, national political positions on the topic etc.,
      doubtfully much will change for the better any time soon.