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Are Medallists Really a Bad Statistic? - 16 August 2012

by Chris Ramsey - Headmaster, The King's School, Chester.

In the world of University Admissions, the question of discrimination and contextual data has generated a great deal of heat over the last year or so. Outrage has been expressed on one side about the dominance of independent schools in the Oxbridge stakes, and on the other about cack-handed methods of discriminating in favour of state-educated applicants. A recent email correspondence on the matter ended with this apparently throw-away remark from a fellow Head: ‘a pity that Olympic selection does not use contextual data’! As an off-hand in-joke it raised a smile.

But then came the words of Lord Moynihan, commenting this week precisely on selection for the Olympics. It is, he said, ‘wholly unacceptable’ and ‘one of the worst statistics in sport’ that half of our Olympians in London 2012 were educated at independent schools. The Prime Minister chipped in too, saying that independent schools have ‘more than their fair share’ of medals.

Now, before I express the outrage I suspect many will feel, two preliminaries. First, and predictably, as with the Prime Minister, Lord Moynihan (it is a hereditary peerage by the way) was at an independent school himself. It should not matter, and doesn’t, but there we go. Second, what exactly is a ‘fair share’? The Olympics are – like all sport – of course about fairness in the competition, but not at all about some kind of equal distribution of sporting wealth. If every single one of the best athletes in the country came from, say, Yorkshire, it would be remarkable, newsworthy, bizarre even, but not unfair. Sport, in its selection and in its execution, is about competition, ruthless, pure and simple.

Why, then, is it ‘unacceptable’ that half of our best athletes were privately educated? It is obviously understandable: our total count of Olympians includes quite big teams of equestrians and water sport practitioners. These are hardly mass occupations. Amongst the runners and jumpers, the proportion of independently-educated Olympians will doubtless be lower than amongst the three-day eventers. In other words we have a skewed sporting sample.

But in any case, surely what matters is that the best sportsmen and sportswomen are identified, coached and ultimately celebrated. Why does it matter where they came from? We do not say it is ‘unacceptable’ that most politicians come from a law or business background, and demand more from the teaching or medical professions, or from the millions of cleaners and factory workers. For all his genuine concern for social mobility, Alan Milburn has never campaigned for more postmen (as his Cabinet colleague Alan Johnson once was) to be in Parliament. It doesn’t – or shouldn’t - matter what your background is. Nor do we say it is ‘unacceptable’ that most top footballers play in big cities, and demand equality for rural areas. No, we understand that the city will breed success more than the country in this particular field of endeavour.

Of course Lord Moynihan’s words echo, in one way, the outrage first publicly expressed by Gordon Brown, and most recently by Peter Lampl about the domination apparently exerted by independent schools over the important and – in their view – privileged area of society that is Higher Education. The rhetoric is the same: independent schools only educated seven in a hundred Brits, so why should they have half of the places at Oxbridge/in the GB team? It is a good tub-thumper of an argument, but some vital points need to be stated in response.

First, independent schools do not control selection to the GB Olympics team any more than they do to Oxbridge: they simply do their best with and for their pupils. It is those pupils’ good fortune, of course, that the values of competition and commitment are alive and well in good independent schools – the values sport also needs and cherishes. What we self-evidently need to do is spread those values more widely. Moynihan/Brown rhetoric leads people to think that we in the independent sector are secretly trying to keep our privileged position, like French aristocrats or the medieval Spanish Catholic Church. Actually, we’d love to help spread our sporting ethos, and up and down the country, quietly, we are. We host football competitions and coach primary school children; we run cricket courses and rowing camps. We try to forge partnerships.

Second, it is no more the business of Olympic (or other) selectors to indulge in social engineering than it is the business of university admissions tutors to. Does anyone seriously suggest that England’s cricket selectors should be ensuring more representation by state school alumni? It should not matter to them one jot where anyone was educated.

Third, it is tiresome that independent schools should be lumped together as if they were all one type of institution. In fact the sector is incredibly varied, containing as it does some schools which are highly academically selective (though seldom any more so than state grammar schools), others which are not; it contains famous and expensive boarding schools, and former direct-grant schools which don’t feel notably different to state schools. Some charge modest fees and give numerous bursaries; a very few are extremely expensive. All they have in common is that they are not controlled by the state.

Finally, the most obvious point of all. It is hardly surprising that many Olympians were educated at independent schools, because many independent schools seek out the clever and the talented, and seek to develop them. These schools are willing to be flexible and understanding, and to support young athletes as they support young musicians and budding mathematicians. The obvious, and very famous example here is Tom Daley: unable to find the right support in his local comprehensive, he has flourished at excellent Plymouth College. I think I can guess what kinds of things they had to do to support: flexibility with timetable. Pastoral support. The right mix of encouragement and toughness. I too, in my previous Somerset school had the enormous privilege of offering places to two superb young cricketers, Jos Buttler and Alex Barrow. The former is now an England regular: we were proud of him and I still am. At my current school we are proud of our four Olympians and I bet we’ll have many more. Not because there is any conspiracy or privilege, but because we educate the young well, we believe in a disciplined and committed approach to all work and all activities, and we have staff whose approach is committed too. We share those basic values with many schools in both sectors. And – I repeat the point – these are values we would love to see more widely embraced than, sadly, they are.

Above all, it surely rather better becomes Lord Moynihan to congratulate Olympic successes, their current and perhaps even more so their past coaches, than to call them ‘one of the worst statistics in sport’. Lord Moyhihan - independent school and Oxford educated former Olympian - shame on you.

Chris Ramsey
Headmaster, The King’s School, Chester


Are Medallists Really a Bad Statistic?
Outstanding article.
John Wimbush from UK, 27 September 2012 13:52
A few comments
Thanks for writing this thought provoking article. I hope you don't mind me making a few comments in response.
Firstly, I feel you may be overly defending an implied slight of independent schools within the stated statistic. I had the pleasure of working briefly with UK Sport, Sport England and a number of the National Governing Bodies for sport a few years ago (which was when I was first introduced to this statistic of over 50% of medals going to independently educated children) and I have to say that no one ever took this as a criticism of the independent sector. I suspect Lord Moynihan and the Prime Minister meant no slight either.
To the contrary, everyone I worked with was engaged in understanding why this discrepancy existed and how we could help other sectors in society to increase their representation (if for no other reason than this was evidence of a vast wealth of untapped talent that could see us charging up the medal tables). Regrettably this is not an easy problem to solve since it is yet another manifestation of inequality that has widespread ramifications across everything from health and education to teenage pregnancies and drug abuse. (Incidentally if anyone is interested in reading about the increasingly compelling evidence of how inequality is damaging to everyone in a society, I thoroughly recommend 'The Spirit Level' by Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett).
Without getting into all the nuances, let's face it, money is a big factor (although ethnic cultures, parental education and experiences, language and literacy, poor access to information also play a part). And before we jump the other way and give independent schools too much credit for their sporting credentials, we need to acknowledge the obvious correlation between wealthier families and their children's attendance at independent schools.
Which brings me to my second point of disagreement. Sport at an elite level is NOT all about 'competition, ruthless, pure and simple'. It's about the many years of training beforehand with access to the best facilities, top class coaches, and the freedom to train without other limiting responsibilities. Time and again, when you hear our cycling athletes asked why they've risen from relative obscurity to dominate the track, they've cited the money that has been pumped in from the lottery.
Now in theory, if you get onto UK Sport's radar as someone with the potential to win medals at an international level, everyone in the UK should have the same access to said facilities, coaches etc. But to get spotted in the first place requires guardians with the time and money to invest in giving their children the opportunities to try sports, join clubs, travel to local competitions etc.
Behind every successful swimmer, there will be guardians who have been taking them to the swimming pool for 6:30am 3-5 times per week. That's a big ask for any parent but imagine doing it as a single parent with two children or in a family with only one car when your partner needs it to get to work. What about families with no cars (let's not start on the state of public transport)? These are scenarios that are simply less prevalent in families that are wealthy enough to have children at an independent school.
A few years ago, UK Sport told me that the average amount of money guardians have to spend on their budding athletes ranges from £6,000 to £12,000 per year (travel, lessons, equipment etc). Like good schools, there are subsidies to had, but that still leaves families with big bills and huge sacrifices if they're to support Olympic hopefuls.
So in summary, I totally support your defence of the independent sector and do not doubt for one moment that their focus on sport is both commendable and highly beneficial for all children. I don't believe politicians would actually argue against you - only that the statistic is an ugly sign that huge inequalities remain in our society and that tackling them remains one of the most challenging problems of our time.

Mark Brighton
Parent of an Identified 'Talented' Young Athlete
Mark Brighton from Basingstoke, 07 September 2012 17:30

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