Elitism in British sports: How deep is it?



If you want the best chance of becoming a medal winning British athlete, go to a private school. This was the outlook recent figures released showed, highlighting the advantage which those who attend private schools receive.

At the Beijing Olympics over 50% of Britain’s medallists came from private schools. In this year’s London Games, the figures of the events so far, show that at least 35% of medallists have been privately educated. Whilst on face value it seems as though state schools are on par with private schools when it comes to athletics, lest we not forget that only 7% of the population receives a private education. In other words, the person to success ratio in sports is several times higher in private schools than state schools. Why?

The normal adage is ‘the poorer you are, the harder you work’. However that simply does not equate in this situation. Children born into working class families seldom have the opportunity to practice sport. Apart from sprinting, all other activities require:

Time - working-class families are exactly that, working, and rarely have the opportunity to take their children to clubs that are situated miles from where they live.

Equipment - many families can ill-afford to buy the equipment needed or have the room needed. The most children can look forward to is the local drug-infested park which contain many swings and see-saws but very little sporting equipment.

Specialised training – Unlike football which can be self-taught, most sports require technical skills which can only be learned or understood through a mentor who has dedicated his or her life to coaching, thus has years of experience in the field. The most state schooled children have to look forward to is a one hour session with their P.E teacher.

This is a damning review on how poorly set up our physical educational programme is. Simply put, we could have the Usain Bolt equivalent of javelin on our hands and not know it because due to various reasons, the scouting and availability of facilities to specialised equipment and training is not up to standard.

Chairman of the British Olympic Association Lord Moynihan said:

There is so much talent out there in the 93% that should be identified and developed. That has got to be a priority for future sports policy. I have spoken about it many times and I will continue to speak about it until there is not breath left in me.

Whilst Lord Moynihan’s desire must be applauded, recent figures released by the Charities Aid Foundation (CAF) suggest a bleaker picture. The figures show that the income of local sports clubs and charities fell 15% in real terms since 2004.

Director of Research at CAF Richard Harrison said:

The last eight years have been tough for many sports clubs and charities, particularly the smaller ones. The financial pressures facing many community charities, running sports clubs, maintaining playing fields and keeping local facilities open, mirrors the difficult financial climate facing many charities. We need people to keep backing local sports clubs and charities as well, to ensure they can continue to support grassroots sport, and all the other causes we care about.

Nonetheless since London won the right to stage the games, much noise had been made by officials during the build up to the Olympics, signaling a marked change in the nation’s approach to sports; even going as far to create the slogan ‘inspire a generation’ in order to ‘secure a legacy for our children’. Therefore recent negativities about the past were surely just that, in the past?

Wrong! Reports yesterday confirmed since coming into power, the government has sold a further 21 school playing fields - 21 fields that would have been of huge benefit to working class children and 21 less school fields for children to practice sports in. Moreover, despite an injection of more than £2bn into sports by the previous Government, school sports budgets have also been reduced by 70% in some areas, resulting in a lack of finance, facilities and school sports partnerships.

Prime Minister David Cameron’s response to the issue, failed to attack the situation head-on, but put the fault squarely on teachers. He said:

Frankly, if the only problem was money, you'd solve this with money. The only problem isn't money. The problem has been too many schools wanting to have competitive sport, some teachers not wanting to join in and play their part. So if we want to have a great sporting legacy for our children - and I do - we have got to have an answer that brings the whole of society together to crack this, more competition, more competitiveness, more getting rid of the idea all must win prizes and you can't have competitive sports days. We need a big cultural change - a cultural change in favour of competitive sports. That's what I think really matters. And one of the answers there is making sure the sports clubs really deliver in terms of sports in our schools. Link the schools with the clubs, because the clubs really believe in competition and the competitive ethos and I think that is one of the best ways to deliver what we want.

This seems like a muddled approach to the issue at hand and totally misses the point. Most teachers do not have the expertise or the time to coach their students. My days in primary school consisted of one teacher teaching the basics of ‘duck duck goose’. Admittedly, secondary school was better, though the student to teacher ratio was a problem leading to many students running around aimlessly, rather than guided and coached properly. With schools not being able to provide the level of assistance needed, one would hope that the government would have been stringent enough to hold on to the few fields we have to give children an opportunity to practice sports.

Cameron acknowledged that since the coalition came to power, 21 school playing fields have been approved for disposal - despite a promise in the coalition agreement that they would be protected. He said that:

It was a mistake that playing fields were sold in the past. They are not being sold any more.

Furthermore, he alluded to the sum of one billion pounds to be spent on schools for the next four years. And it is with these sentiments that the prospect of further success in sports from our athletes (especially from state schools) hinges on.

Fortune Achonna

Archived Comments

We've changed to a new commenting system - comments below are preserved for archive purposes

Don't get blinded by the figures

I read a report that showed that the Labour Government invested £2.4 billion into sports infrastructure, therefore the Coalition Government initially slashing the budget and then investing £1billion has to be seen for what it is!

Proud that GB has won so many

Proud that GB has won so many medals, but sport should be for all. Of course money plays a significant role in making it accessible and possible.
As Cameron sits in the VIP seats watching the sports, when I sit at home watching it on TV it seems at odds to negate the role of money and class. Remember the legacy promises Cameron.