I have just returned from Australia where the natural order has been turned upside down. Not a ‘whinging pom’ in ear shot, but lots of ‘ozzies’ whining about their country’s below par performance in the Olympics. With Britain set to finish third in the medals table, other countries want to know the secrets behind our Olympic success.
The easy answer is money. Since 1997 the National Lottery has been injecting significant sums into UK sport. Buying the best facilities, training programmes and sports science expertise does make a difference. The relationship is clear to see with team GB securing the most golds in rowing and cycling where expenditure has been greatest.
The argument that money buys results is also used to explain the remarkable success of former independent school students in the 2012 Olympics. Whilst independent schools educate just 7% of the school age population, over 50% of the London medallists have been educated privately. Critics of independent schools will denounce this achievement and put it down to money; if private schools can build boating lakes and employ professional coaches then their pupils are bound to excel.
Money does make a difference, but Olympic success lies as much in values as it does in finance.
Olympics gold medals are won through elite competition. In some sectors of the British educational establishment elitism and competition are dirty words which have no place in schools. Some headteachers actively discourage competitive sports fixtures, whilst the government has a tendency to see school sport as an extension of personal, social and health education and a means of reducing childhood obesity. Sport does have an important role to play in promoting exercise and improving the health of the nation, but in encouraging participative sport we should also promote competitive sport. Indeed for many children an element of competition is more likely to encourage participation.
Good schools have a diverse sports curriculum with a wide range of activities to suit all interests and abilities. Students who might lack the speed or ball skills needed on the hockey field, can excel at rowing, shooting or table tennis. The diversity should be enhanced by competition, which encourages pupils on to higher levels of achievement, and introduces them to the discipline and resilience needed for success. Once talented sportsmen and women have been identified, we should celebrate their abilities and support them with specialist training programmes.
Competition and elitism are fundamental to sporting success. Independent schools recognise this and through house competitions, inter-school fixture lists, and dedicated training programmes for elite performers, they nurture British sporting talent. Politicians will congratulate individual medallists, but I doubt they will thank independent schools for their significant part in the 2012 success story.