Look who's on the top podium

22nd August 2008 at 01:00

British athletes, long-maligned and seen as trailing behind the pack, this week have shown that not only can they compete with the rest, but they can surpass them.

The nation is enjoying a historic Olympic Games. And the reasons why are clear. Certainly the athletes' natural talent is central, as is the dedication that leads people such as sports apprentice Rebecca Adlington to swim 8,000m is less time than it takes most of us to make a cup of tea.

Changes such as the introduction of apprenticeships in sporting excellence have also surely played their part. Top athletes need a way of balancing their sports training with an education that will set them up for a future when their competitive years are over, and so far this seems to provide a solution. Moreover, it encourages them to adopt ever more professional and rigorous approaches to their sporting discipline.

But it is also unlikely to be a coincidence that Britain's sportsmen and women have taken their biggest haul of gold medals at a time when the National Lottery millions going to sport have also hit a record high. This cash has bought expert coaching and facilities that have enabled talented people to reach their potential.

There is another group of people who also have been performing beyond expectations. Colleges are helping their students get better A-level grades at a faster rate than state schools, which is a tribute to lecturers that teach them, as well as to the many college leaders who have transformed underperforming institutions. It is a particularly important achievement given that FE students are more likely to be from deprived backgrounds.

And all this time colleges have been working with less cash than their state rivals and, in turn lecturers, receive less for their work than school teachers.

While the Government has taken steps to reduce this deficit, the prospect of local authorities controlling the pound;7 billion of funding for educating 16- to 19-year-olds is not encouraging, given the political pressure to support schools. This week should give food for thought. If colleges were given the kind of backing our athletes have received, what could they achieve?

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