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Are Medallists Really a Bad Statistic?

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

Posted on: 16 Aug 2012

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


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The ISC Press Office posts blogs on behalf of ISC schools and Associations.