State pupils do have the mettle for medals
The oft-heard allegation that the state school sector as a whole makes inadequate provision for physical education and sport is mistaken. Certainly, there are many examples of outstanding practice. But it is also true that many schools could do better.
What cannot be denied is that independent schools are now dominating the elite sporting sphere. The tip of the sporting pyramid has seen more than 750 of their former pupils win senior international honours since 2000; they have collected more than 40 medals in the past three Olympic Games; and the prime minister has been advised, I understand, that up to a third of Team GB for the 2012 Games were educated privately. Sir Chris Hoy, Zara Phillips, Beth Tweddle and Ben Ainslie, to name but four, are former independent school pupils who have been lined up as medal hopes this time around.
Andrew Strauss, Alastair Cook and Stuart Broad, the captains of the Test, One Day International and Twenty20 England cricket teams, were all privately educated. If we turn to the winter sports, the list of familiar names is even longer. Yes, some stars will have won sports scholarships in order to attend their schools but, to my knowledge, it is true of none of those listed above.
If the tip of the pyramid is so replete with pupils who make up just 7 per cent of the school population, it is because the participation base for children in independent schools is so broad. PE and sport play a vital role in the lives of pupils educated in these schools. This has not always been the case. PE - as opposed to games - only arrived at most independent schools as late as the 1970s, whereas it had been an essential ingredient in state schools since the 1930s.
When I attended state schools in the 1950s, PE and sport featured prominently and our teams held their own with the local independent schools. Heroes from my schools gained medals at Olympic and Commonwealth Games, and we pupils set out to match them. Former state school pupils dominated national teams in my sports: athletics and rugby.
Not today. The England rugby team is packed with independent school old boys, and 10 of the track and field athletes competing in London 2012 were privately educated. The world's best cricket side - England - and recent Olympic success in cycling, equestrianism, rowing and sailing largely have their roots in the independent sector.
There are five reasons why this change has come about and an examination of these factors shows how state schools lost their way, how some of them found their way back and how others can do so in the future. The reasons are time, facilities, opportunity, staffing and tradition. Funding, of course, plays a big part in four of these five.
A sporting chance
The introduction of PE in independent schools was matched by a huge programme of building sports centres, swimming pools and the like - and that momentum has never slackened. Meanwhile, the combining of small state schools to make economically efficient larger ones saw one set of sports facilities replacing several; bigger and grander, perhaps, but not proportionate to pupil numbers. Then there has been the selling off of school playing fields: four in 10 schools lost their grounds between 1992 and 2005.
Another factor is that a huge proportion of teachers at independent schools involve themselves in school sport. This is how the breadth is maintained: refereeing on a Saturday and leading a weekend hill-walking trip are part of the normal routine. The goodwill that once replicated this in state schools was partly lost in past employment disputes and now the sporting load is carried almost solely by PE teachers.
The traditions of all schools are set by the governors and headteacher. If they want PE and sport to thrive, they will find a means to solve the problems associated with staffing, opportunities, facilities and time.
The story of one school illustrates this. Northampton Grammar School was one of the leading sports schools in the 1960s, when I was a young teacher in the East Midlands. Its rugby, athletics and basketball teams regularly beat the independent schools in the region, and many of its boys won schoolboy caps and went on to gain honours at senior level. Then, as part of the comprehensive movement, it became Northampton School for Boys and many of its proud traditions were lost. The school became one of the least successful in the county and school sport virtually disappeared. Valiant efforts by a few teachers managed to maintain some rugby and basketball.
Then Bruce Liddington - now director general of academies chain E-Act - arrived as headmaster in the 1990s. Under his dynamic leadership the school rediscovered its beliefs, energy and self-confidence. Standards in all aspects of school life began to climb: GCSE and A-level results improved year on year, and PE and sport regained their place in the sun.
Standards have continued to climb under the current head, Michael Griffiths, in sport and across the curriculum. Now few schools can match Northampton's breadth of provision across the age range and the school competes at national level in rugby, basketball, football, cross-country, athletics, tennis, table tennis, swimming and hockey. It is also fast gaining renown in rowing.
If all children had the sporting opportunities that the boys at Northampton have - if all children were given the sporting chance that the 7 per cent at independent schools receive - how many medals would Team GB win at future Olympic Games?
Malcolm Tozer is the editor of Physical Education and Sport in Independent Schools, published by John Catt Educational.