The disproportionate representation of UK private schools (confusingly called ‘public schools’) amongst Britain’s Olympians has been causing some controversy.
For some on the right this highlights the superiority of private sector schooling over state provision – especially as a lot of money has supposedly gone into promoting sports in the public sector.
For some on the left this just goes to show how unequal our society is and how in many sports the elite is only open to those who have rich parents.
There is undoubtedly some truth in both arguments – but they both miss one rather simple truth, which I will illustrate from personal experience.
I went to Barrow-in-Furness Grammar School for Boys in the late 1960s. Although being a Grammar School, we were mainly working-class kids because most middle-class kids from Barrow went as day-boarders to private schools in the Lake District.
Also, despite being in a northern, industrial, working class town we played Rugby Union. For those who don’t know, in England at the time Rugby was divided more or less on class lines – Union was for the ‘nobs’ and League for the ‘oiks’. But we had a Headmaster who thought we should pretend to be middle-class, even if we weren’t – so Union it was.
Because we played Union there was no-one else to play in Barrow. All the other schools played League.
So we had to go off on coaches to play the ‘public (private) school’ boys who did play Union. The first time, in 1968, that I played in one of these matches we went off to play St Bees (founded 1583) further up the Cumbrian coast. As we rolled into their picturesque grounds we saw them all – including sixth formers! – wearing shorts.
This was going to be a push-over we thought. Here we were were, a bunch of tough (we thought) working class lads up against these upper-class twits in shorts! They decimated us. I don’t remember the actual score, but it was humiliating.
The main reason was simple – and it wasn’t directly to do with money. We had as our coach one of the best rugby players in Britain – our chemistry teacher Tom Brophy. Tom had played Union for England before converting to League and been to Wembley with Barrow’s League team the year before. So we weren’t exactly deprived in the coaching department – I doubt St Bees had anyone near Tom’s ability coaching them. And of course playing rugby costs very little – my family was poor but I could play.
No, the real reason was rather simple – St Bees was a residential, 7-days a week, school in an isolated rural location. They practiced every day, whereas we only managed a couple of times a week.They had nothing much else to do, we had plenty of distractions – not least the Girls Grammar School next door.
I don’t know how representative this experience was, but I’d guess it is fairly. Residential private schools have an obvious advantage that has little to do directly with their resources, or rich parents, or anything else – they have a ‘captive audience’ for developing sporting prowess.This fact doesn’t play well to either the right-wing or left-wing narrative about public school success in sports, so no-one mentions it. But I can painfullly testify to its reality.