Once again, this summer has seen concern expressed at the disproportionate number of leading sportsmen and women who have been educated at independent schools. The criticism, if such it is, is not that this is unfair, but rather that state schools are failing to provide their pupils with the necessary opportunities, coaching and encouragement to be able to reach the same high standard.
Those who attended independent schools do seem to be well represented at the most senior level in some sports. This could be said, for example, of cricket and rowing. It may possibly be the case in tennis, perhaps less so in athletics, rugby and swimming, and not at all in football and cycling.
It is not surprising that cricket and rowing should be dominated by independent schools. These are sports which require facilities and equipment that are expensive to acquire and maintain – cricket grounds up to minor counties standard in some cases; boat houses, boats and specialist equipment for rowing.
These are schools which can afford to employ specialist sports coaches and offer sports scholarships, that have parents who contribute considerable sums of money to develop sport and which have time to devote to sport, especially in boarding schools. It is unrealistic to expect all this to be replicated at state schools.
It is true, too, that school sport in the state sector has changed in the last 50 years. The old pattern of games one afternoon a week and inter-school matches on Saturdays has disappeared, as has the expectation, and acceptance, that the school team should come first. Many teachers used to be involved – some responsible for a team, others, on a rota, accompanying teams to away fixtures. It was essentially an amateur approach, with often unqualified volunteers doing their best to encourage participation.
There is still competitive sport in and between state schools, whatever the conspiracy theorists like to believe. There are inter-school competitions, organised sometimes by district or county federations led by enthusiastic teachers from state schools. But far fewer fixtures take place on Saturdays, and schools no longer have first claim on their pupils at weekends.
This can be explained in part by changes in conditions of service which, from the 1970s, concentrated on classroom teaching and ruled out an assumption that teachers could be expected to participate in extra-curricular activities. Then came the national curriculum, inspection, league tables and accountability, and the consequent pressures left teachers with less time for activities outside the classroom and less inclination to give up Saturdays as well.
But there was a change, too, in national attitudes to sport, with a desire to see winners at the Olympic Games and in world championships. This was accompanied by a realisation that to compete successfully at international level proper infrastructure and coaching were required. The “old boys” approach gave way to a new professionalism.
For juniors, this has meant that, for many, the club has replaced the school for competition and coaching. This has given access to better facilities and coaching than individual state schools could provide. This, in turn, has led to success in sports in which the British had no tradition of excellence. This does not mean that school sport is no longer important. On the contrary, the greatest success can be achieved when teachers work closely with local clubs. Conversely, where teachers lack interest or fail to support their pupils, initiatives by local clubs are less successful.
A sense of proportion is important. It is a nonsense to suggest that a large number of privately educated men and women at the top in some sports is an indication of shortcomings in state schools. Where resources and expertise are comparable, champions can emerge whatever their background.