Friday, 6 December 2013

How unfair! How come so many British athletes and sports stars were privately educated?

I remarked yesterday that members of the senior judiciary are more  likely to have been educated at independent schools. During the Olympic Games last year, the same thing was noticed about athletes; many of them were privately educated. Why should this be? Here is a fairly typical maintained school in a poor area.  It is time for the PE lesson and the children are about to play basketball. Now most of you probably imagine basketball as being a fast-moving, energetic and furiously competitive game; with plenty of running about. You fools! That was back in the old days. Here is how it is organised in this typical school. The eight and nine year-olds are divided into two teams. These teams are scrupulously matched, with the same number of feeble skinny kids in each, a similar number of girls, black children  and so on. None of that old-fashioned stuff, where a team captain chooses who he or she wants.  Then, the two teams are lined up on either side of the hoop. They stand still and are reproved if they make too much noise. Turns are taken, so that a member of each team takes the ball and attempts to throw it through the hoop. Once this has been done, then that person walks quietly to the end of the line and it is time for the next person in the opposing team to be given the ball. This way, you see, every child gets an equal number of goes and nobody is left out. 

Supporting your own side too vociferously is frowned upon. You must cheer equally for the opposing side. If it looks as though one side is winning by too great a margin, then the teacher cunningly adjusts the score! One minute, it is ten to five, but then a few goes later, she will announce that the score is now eleven ten. The children are not fooled by this, of course. 

One of the reasons for not letting the kids run about is that if two children collide, then an incident report must be filled out. This is a real pain and so it is better not to allow rough contact. When one boy grabbed another and shoved him, while they were queuing up at the end of playtime, I had to write out a report on the event; although nobody had been hurt and the whole incident was over in a couple of seconds. This entailed writing down on a form how many adults witnessed the supposed assault, the names of the children involved, an account of the sequence of events and the action taken afterwards.   This had to be counter-signed by another teacher and copies made in the office. One copy went to the deputy head, another to the class teacher of the other boy involved and the original filed in our class.  This wasted twenty minutes of a teacher’s time; twenty minutes that could have been devoted to teaching. There is no really vigorous physical activity at all. Most of the lesson is spent standing in line and every so often, the teacher calls for the children to come and sit at her feet, while she rebukes them for cheering too loudly or perhaps jumping too high. It is the dullest forty five minutes imaginable.

During the Olympic games last year, it was noticed that a disproportionate number of our best athletes and sportsmen and women had been privately educated. This is because the chances of any child in an average primary school getting a taste for competitive sport are not high, to say the least of it.  They are discouraged from vigorous play in the playground, the playing fields have been sold to property speculators and any sort of striving for personal excellence in the field of sport is frowned upon.  Things are very different in the independent sector. There, team games such as rugby are officially encouraged. The children are urged to do better than their opponents. Little wonder then that they are the young people who have an advantage when it comes to developing their athletic prowess!


  1. Thanks for a very thought-provoking article.

    My immediate reaction was to chalk the outrageous goings-on you describe up to the “everyone should have prizes and nobody should be allowed to be too good” school of thought.

    With such a regime, it's indeed likely that schools like these will continue to be under-represented among the nation's sporting elite.

    But then as I thought some more, I began to wonder . . . should a school's primary goal be to further the nation's sporting glory, or to encourage children to be physically active? Granted, this particular school of yours seems to be achieving neither aim. However, let's face it: there are many among us who are never going to be any good at the kind of sports at which medals and lucrative contracts are won. There are things I've been put off for life because of the humiliation in PE class! Yet there are things which children could do to get them moving that are enjoyable for everyone. I think schools should be encouraging that in PE, instead of making a poor and wrong-headed attempt to get everyone to participate in competitive sport. (As an aside, I also believe that if possible, schools should teach all children rudimentary swimming skills.)

    I think that sports clubs and organisations like YMCA are better placed than state schools to nurture budding sporting talent.


    1. You raise some good points here, Elizabeth. I was usually the last one to be chosen for teams at PE and hated competitive games like football. I can see good points about the new arrangements. However, this is not just about sporting prowess, but also competing in general. Entry to Oxford and Cambridge is essentially a competition. I think I need to do a proper post on this to make myself clear.