Friday, 3 August 2012

I went to private school, where's my gold medal then?

    There's something of a fuss in the news this morning. It seems that rather a lot of British Olympic medalists received their education in the private sector rather than in state schools. In a country obsessed with both education and social class envy this is a big story. And rightly so, forgetting national willy-waving over medal tables for a moment and descending to a personal level a talented athlete should have the same opportunities wherever they are born.
    Unfortunately though as is so often the case, the baying mobs have missed the target. It's a case of the statistical trope at work: correlation does not prove causation. This graph is a famous example produced in support of the Flying Spaghetti Monster religious satire, purporting to show that global warming is the result of the decline in Caribbean piracy since the early 19th century. It's absolute rubbish of course, but demonstrates the point very nicely.
    The real reason that our Olympic athletes are disproportionately likely to have attended a private school has little to do with the sporting ability of private schools and everything to do with the fact that private school pupils tend to have rich parents who can ferry them to competitions, buy them expensive kit, pay entry fees, and perform all the other expensive functions of a professional sporting team without bankrupting themselves. My cousin's son - state educated - played his sport at a national level when he was a teenager and I saw the struggles she and her husband went through in his support. Would he have become a household name had they been millionaires? Who knows, but it's certain his path would have been significantly eased if they were.
    So what of the schools themselves? It's a frequent cry, that private schools have better facilities than state schools, and it's not without truth. But it's worth examining the business model of a typical private school.
    The customers of a private school are not the pupils, but the parents. They sign the cheques, they call the shots. And they send their sons and daughters away not with a view of Olympic gold in their minds but of graduation day in Oxford or Cambridge, of My Son The Doctor or My Daughter The Lawyer. They are willing to pay for a bit of sport, perhaps rugby, cricket, or hockey (never football, far too proletarian!), but not at the expense of career ambitions for their offspring. If a child at a private school shows sporting promise their school certainly won't hinder them but support as they progress is strictly extra-curricular. Which is where the rich parents come in.
    Long-term readers of this blog will know I attended a private school. My parents don't have much money, Maggie paid my fees. And as I have expounded at length before, the experience was not a good one. But it does mean I saw the ethos of private schooling at first hand. I thus would agree with anyone decrying the dominance of rugby or cricket by the privately educated, but I can't see it in the wider sporting field. If our sporting overlords really want to increase the numbers of state educated athletes they should concentrate not on the schools but on the extra-curricular support for promising candidates without the benefit of rich parents. The schools' job is education, not elite sporting training.


  1. Here, here, quite so but who's going to pay for that to happen? The taxpayer of course but wait a minute, the government don't like spending our money on worthwhile ventures, they like to waste it on armaments, wars, filling the coffers of so-called poor nations like India that actually doesn't need it and so on. There's not enough money to pay for better infrastructures in transport, communications, water supplies, health services et al so where are they going to get the funds for extra-curricular sports facilities? Slim chance I'll wager but they might make a token gesture here and there. I'm afraid that in this country if you want it you have to fight for it and have a good convincing reason for any response.

    Shirley Anne x

  2. Unlike you I went to a state (Grammar) school, my experience is that my daughters comprehensive has much better sports facilities and coaches in a wider range of sports than we had in the 70's. Much of what we did have was provided through the PTA ~ i.e. the parents ~ and that was fr the main stream Rugby, cricket, athletics any thing outside these three was pretty much ignored, things are much better these days, however do no over look that many of the medals s far awarded have been for cycling, rowing, and equestrian events all of which need very expensive equipment, then there is sailing, shooting archery etc.. etc. few of us could afford for one of out children to excel at these sports without some external financial support.

  3. You graph only considers Caribbean pirate numbers, surely piracy off the African coast should be having some influence too...

    Britain used to be such a strong nation of pirates with a little government encouragement.

    Nice new profile pic...

  4. Why thank you! I felt it was time the pic had an update.

    I guess this was a rant at the Today programme. Yes, I'm turning into a Victor Meldrew figure.

    Funnily enough my school did put cash into one sport. Rowing, 'cause it was a way to get into Oxford. Me, I spent my teenage years kayaking, in a boat I had to repair frequently. There, I guess private school taught me how to lay fibreglass.