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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.

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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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