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Malcolm Tozer: Why do private schools punch above their weight when it comes to Olympic medals?

Malcolm Tozer, editor of the book Physical Education and Sport in Independent Schools, writes:

Sir Michael Wilshaw, Her Majesty’s Chief Inspector for Schools, announced in February that he would commission a report to compare the quality of school sport in the state and independent sectors. This followed hard on an analysis of the performance of Team GB at the London Olympic Games and, in particular, on the perception that sportsmen and sportswomen who had attended state schools contributed less to Team GB’s success than those who had been educated privately. I understand that the schools for this comparison have been chosen and that work will begin in the coming weeks. 

Before the inspectors take up their task, let me set the record straight. The oft-repeated claim, first made by UK Sport and Olympics bosses, that privately-educated competitors comprised around a third of Team GB for the London Games is incorrect; the actual figure was 17.3 per cent. The corresponding figures for earlier summer Olympic Games never approached a third: 13.1 per cent in Sydney, 20.6 per cent in Athens and 23.1per cent in Beijing. The average for the last four Games was 18.3 per cent - about a fifth. The one-third claim is a myth. 

It is true that all these percentages are greater than the 7 per cent of the school population who attend independent schools, but that might not be a fair comparison. Most privately-educated pupils stay on at school until 18 and here they comprise 18 per cent of all pupils still at school over the age of 16. It is debatable, therefore, whether or not independent schools won more than their share of places in Team GB at the Olympic Games. 

The second oft-repeated claim was first voiced by Lord Moynihan, the Chairman of the British Olympic Association, on the day that Team GB’s first gold medals of the London Olympic Games of 2012 were won by a pair of privately-educated rowers: “It is one of the worst statistics in British sport, and wholly unacceptable, that over 50 per cent of our medalists in Beijing came from independent schools.” 

The actual figure for Beijing was 37.7 per cent and it stayed steady at 37.5 per cent in London. The corresponding figures for earlier Olympic Games were Sydney, 32.7 per cent and Athens, 26.6 per cent, and the average for the four Games was 34.5 per cent - about a third. The 50 per cent claim is a myth. 

These corrections should not suggest to Sir Michael’s Ofsted inspectors that their enquiry should be abandoned, rather they demand that the oft-repeated myths should be replaced by the following correct facts regarding the contribution of independent schools to British sporting success in the period 2000-2013. 

A total of 262 members of Team GB for the four summer Olympic Games from Sydney to London attended independent schools, 97 of these competed at more than one Games, so the number of former pupils from these schools was 165. Men from independent schools made up one-fifth of the four Olympic teams, whereas women comprised the greater fraction of one-quarter. Women did particularly well.

The 165 attended 117 different schools and no one type of school had more than its fair share of success – whether co-educational or single-sex, or day or boarding. There was no hot-housing by a handful of schools. 

Olympic sports do not figure prominently in the curriculum of independent schools because most give preference to non-Olympic sports such as cricket, lacrosse and rugby union. When all international sports enter the calculations, more than 850 privately-educated sportsmen and sportswomen have represented their countries at senior international level since 2000. 

Former pupils of independent schools may win only their fair share of places in Team GB but, once in it, they perform exceptionally well. Nearly three-quarters, or 74 per cent, of privately-educated members of Team GB finished in the top eight positions in one of their events in one of the four Olympic Games. 

They won 102 medals – a strike-rate of 39 per cent. Those educated at independent schools supplied about one-third of Team GB’s medalists at each of the four Games, with an overall contribution of 34.5 per cent. 

The appropriate question for Sir Michael’s inspectors to ask is why independent schools produce more than their fair share of Olympic finalists and medal winners, and not why they win more than their fair share of team places? One-fifth of Team GB won one-third of the medals – double the rate of their team-mates.           

Is it the time allocated to physical education and sport in the curricular and extra-curricular timetables? Is it the parental demand that all pupils should be offered the chance to compete in school teams? Is it the contribution of teachers and coaches? Is it the sporting tradition maintained by governors and head teachers?  Or is it a combination of all of these and others?  


Taken from an extract of Malcolm Tozer's paper  "One of the worst statistics in British sport, and wholly unacceptable": The contribution of privately-educated members of Team GB to the summer Olympic Games, 2000-2012, published on last month in The International Journal of the History of Sport.


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