No amateurs here

17th August 2012 at 01:00

What do Tom Daley and Jenna Randall have in common? They have both competed in the pool at the London Olympics as part of Britain's greatest ever team. And in the national hand-wringing over private versus state schooling and sport, they both would have been marked down as privately schooled.

After being bullied at his state school, high-diving prodigy Daley was offered a scholarship at Plymouth College. Randall, a synchronised swimmer who helped Britain to its best-ever Olympic result in the sport, went to Hurst Lodge School.

But this masks a more important reality: private school influence in sport is, in fact, declining. As well as being privately schooled, both these athletes were also on advanced apprenticeships in sporting excellence (AASE): the facilities and coaching even at expensive schools is not enough.

British Olympic Association chairman Lord Moynihan started the panic about private schools and sport - but badly flubbed his figures. He said that 50 per cent of the gold medallists in 2008 were privately educated: in fact, it was only seven out of 27. (It reached 50 per cent only in rowing and sailing.)

At Olympic Games prior to Beijing, half of all medallists had indeed been privately educated. In 2008, it was 37 per cent and this year, it was around a third. We are blaming a state education system that is in reality doing better than ever.

The improvement must in part be down to the introduction of AASEs following the Athens Games in 2004. More than 30 athletes competing at the London Olympics and Paralympics are current or former alumni.

And speaking of Paralympians, in her chapter in Physical Education and Sport in Independent Schools, published this year, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson said she could think of only one privately educated Paralympian ever, sprinter John McFall of Millfield School.

We shouldn't be surprised: public schools tend to lose their dominance once sport turns professional. Premiership rugby union clubs, for example, now all have partnerships with FE colleges. The students spend part of their time training with the professionals, and the modernisers in the Rugby Football Union predict they will outperform the gentleman-amateurs.

Olympic sports have also become more professional, particularly since the London bid was won. And apprenticeships have proved an ideal vehicle: they can even accommodate A-level students such as Daley.

So the government should stop worrying about sport in state education and instead - inspired by teenage swimmers such as Ruta Meilutyte and Katie Ledecky - consider introducing young apprenticeships for under-16 contenders.

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