Given my love of research and reluctance to leave behind Olympic fever, it’s been addictive. I wanted to know: where did the winning athletes go to school, when did they take up their sports, how were they first spotted?
A few days ago I heard a snippet on the radio, 7 per cent of the population is educated privately but independently educated athletes had about a third of the medal tally.
It's clear that private schools can offer fabulous facilities, afford the upkeep and hire specialist coaches but I wondered if it could really be true that they produce the best athletes. Depending on the emphasis of your preferred news source either the privately educated were over-represented or the medal tally of the state educated is up on 2012.
The Sutton Trust certainly deserves a medal of its own for its work in forging private/state school partnerships which has benefited athletes such as gold medal winning swimmer Adam Peaty.
why don't state schools make the team?
The medal distortion is particularly acute in the team sports. Unsurprising perhaps, because it’s not just about whether you introduce a child to a sport at all, but also about what engenders team spirit.
My own tiny state primary school played on borrowed fields and had few facilities, and we pretty much all made the team, regardless of sporting prowess. Hockey was the game of choice because at the time it was the only gender-neutral sport on offer to a school too small to support single-sex teams and we were a really, really proud hockey team. We were good at swimming too and had the good fortune to have access to a borrowed pool, but the swimming team wasn’t nearly as proud and I’m convinced that was because our best swimmers were for the most part not school swimmers, but club swimmers who happened to go to our school. There wasn’t that sense of belonging to the swimming team for external competitions and swimming passions were only raised on sports day when inter-house contest was fierce.
Back to 2016 and our village primary school teaches “ball skills”, not ball sports. Apparently a game of hockey would exclude some children: why a team can’t be just a little too big or a little too small during a PE lesson I don't know!
Boys’ team sports tend to succeed outside of the private sector – everywhere seems to have a junior football or rugby team – but sporty girls can end up in dance or swimming lessons and only get a crack at team sports if they’re lucky enough to have an enthusiastic parent or teacher running a club at school. My own sporty daughter arrived at secondary school feeling she’d missed the boat on team sports and opts instead to dance and climb and has embraced the one team sport that’s new to almost all – rowing!
Teachers: talent-spotting heroes?
What really stood out to me reading about all of our amazing athletes is how many of them were spotted and encouraged by a PE teacher. As parents we're programmed to see our children’s talents as a little special, but it is teachers, who see hundreds over their careers, and who spot those with something really special – those who can run a little faster, jump a little higher and who want to win just that bit more than the rest of us… who will throw themselves on the ground to hit that ball, save that goal or win that race.
If I could sprinkle a little fairy dust on the education system, it would be to ensure that every primary school in Britain had a dedicated PE specialist. Some do, many beg, steal and borrow to great effect. Secondary school can be too late. There is a lot to be said for engendering a love of sport, a taste of triumph, before puberty kicks in and the opposite sex distracts.
Team mum and/or dad
And what else do I notice reading about our sporting heroes? It’s the parents. So many athletes comment on their parents, whether it’s the role model of a sporting mother or a father’s advice always to play to the best of your ability. These champions were encouraged and supported along the way. In many cases a lot of sacrifices have been made to raise an Olympian. The importance of family stands out far more to me among all these stories than any split between state and private.
And apart from the privately educated, who else is beating the odds in Team GB? Well, as far as I can see though men were over-represented, the medal distribution was pretty much even between the sexes.
And while the odds might be better if you’re from an independent school, if you’re state educated your chances are better if you attended a grammar school, and it seems to help a lot to be from a sporty family.
But for a real competitive edge...
Oaklands College (state) and Millfield (independent) win the schools contest, but if you’re not at a specialist sports school I think you’d be better off being from Scotland or Yorkshire … and ideally called Bennett!