Olympic sports and the nation’s health

Mark Steed (JESS, Dubai) reflects on the contributions of independent and state schools.

Team GB Hockey at Rio 2016Pupils who were educated in UK independent schools won 30% of Team GB medals at Rio 2016 and made up 39% of the medallists at London 2012. Given that the sector accounts for only 7% of the total school population in Britain, the headline figures appear stark. However, a detailed analysis of what lies behind these headlines reveals a very different picture to the one commonly presented.

First, there is a false dichotomy in the state/ independent school distinction. In practice many pupils today are educated for at leastpart of their schooling in both sectors, with the Independent Schools Council estimating that 14% of young people in Britain experience the independent sector for part of their schooling. Indeed, because many independent schools offer generous sports scholarship packages, many top sportsmen and women have been educated at some point in the maintained sector. Tom Daley – an established member of Team GB before he went to Plymouth College on a scholarship – is a case in point.

Plymouth College OlympiansSecond, the advent of Lottery funding has brought a greater professionalism to Olympic preparation. Today there is a Team GB superstructure in which sport is a career for many coaches and would-be Olympians and where specific disciplines have been centralised into centres of excellence (for example, cycling in Manchester). In this new age, most universities and sports clubs have been relegated to the role of Team GB feeders. However, this investment in the elite has been concurrent with the well-documented  widespread sale of school playing fields. Elite sport has benefited while the grass roots have suffered.

So how can the state best develop sport for young people? It is difficult to see how schools can reclaim the ground that, literally, they have lost. One option would be for the state to invest more in club sport with its community links and extensive volunteer coaching structure while encouraging clubs to build partnerships with local schools. In this way local enthusiasts would provide for the increasing number of pupils who are denied access to a full range of sports at school.

Team sports

Team sports are a fundamental part of independent school life. The schools compete not only on academic grades but also on sports results. A healthy competitive rivalry between schools provides an impetus to maintain high standards, and thus schools invest key resources (time, facilities, coaching
and scholarships) in order to have top sports teams. Indeed, top schools have sports programmes which mirror those of the professional clubs with whom they have established relationships. These schools understandably attract top talent, which drives a virtuous cycle of improvement as the school’s sporting reputation increases.

An HMC survey of 169 Member schools in 2015 showed that 1,400 current pupils had played for their country and 7,000 had represented their county. It should therefore be no surprise that 50% of the gold-medal-winning Women’s Hockey team and 50% of the silver-medal-winning Men’s Rugby Sevens team at Rio 2016 had attended an independent school.

Bringing state school sport up to the standard of independent schools

There are very good reasons why independent schools are so successful in fostering sporting success. Ultimately it comes down to valuing sport as an important part of the curriculum, and investing in it.

Coaching. The most important factor by far is that independent schools invest in quality sports coaching and expertise. A school can boast the best facilities in the world, but without the drive and expertise of top coaches, it will be in vain. Mount Kelly in Devon has produced 26 Olympians (mainly in swimming) since 1980, including six Olympic medallists, with (during this period) only a four-lane 25m pool.

Time. Independent schools make compulsory sport a priority. Pupils in independent schools experience on average more than twice as much sport per week as pupils in statefunded schools. Pupils in top teams routinely have practices both before and after school, in addition to their games and PE times.

Facilities. While thousands of state school sports pitches were being sold, independent schools were making significant up-front financial investment in specialist training facilities and have an excellent track record in making these available to the wider community. State-educated swimming gold medallist Adam Peaty trains at Repton eight times a week.

Specialist Sports Programmes. Some schools offer sports programmes which combine elite coaching and top facilities made available through scholarships (e.g. Millfield in many sports) or specialise in particular sports (e.g. Shiplake in rowing).

Bridging the 16-18 Gap. One important but missing aspect of the sport debate in recent years has been that young people not only need to take regular exercise and to play sport during the period of compulsory schooling, but that they also need to keep going from 16 until 18. Most independent schools make sport compulsory in the Sixth Form, which means that when young people move into adulthood they are accustomed to taking regular exercise and have experienced the social and health benefits of being part of a team or training group.

Building a healthy nation

However, a debate focused solely on Olympians omits the key objective of building a healthy nation. Unless we foster good habits in our young people, we are in danger of triggering a health crisis that will stretch the nation’s resources to breaking point. Schools, colleges and universities have an opportunity – and I believe a responsibility – to encourage young people to develop habits in relation to regular exercise and diet that will stay with them for the rest of their lives. Independent schools take this responsibility seriously. They believe that sport and exercise are a fundamental part of a British education, and they are willing to back up that belief with the resources that are required to make it happen. There is here a model that the government would do well to replicate in the schools that it funds.

More details of the independent school medallists in Rio can be found on his blog.

This is an edited version of an article in issue 7 of HMC Insight Magazine. Click here to view the full article.