Were Olympic medals won on the playing fields of Eton?

Matt Cole's picture
Were the Olympic medals won on the playing fields of Eton? No, but that may not be the point…

Mark Twain said that a lie can be halfway around the world before the truth has its boots on, and the sporting metaphor was particularly apt last week as Lord Moynihan claimed that private school pupils “dominated” the Olympic medal winners at Beijing in 2008, and hinted that London 2012 would follow the same pattern.

Tory MPs pointed the finger at anti-competitive comprehensives; leftist commentators berated the sale of school playing fields; but nobody noticed that the claim was false or asked why the Chairman of the British Olympic Association had made it.

Moynihan stated that over 50 per cent of the country’s Olympians at Beijing were privately educated, and that this was “one of the worst statistics in sport.” The Daily Telegraph’s Brendan O’Neill blamed “the rise of a culture of low expectations in state schools” and Tory MP Charlotte Leslie told Radio Four listeners that “the reason the private sector does well is that it’s very unapologetic about competition.” Even Rupert Murdoch intervened, tweeting “no wonder China leading in medals while US and UK mainly teach competitive sport a bad thing.”

Meanwhile the progressive and provincial press such as the Northern Echo pointed out that one of the government’s first money-saving measures was to end the School Sports Partnerships, which encouraged inter-school competition. Alastair Campbell wrote in The Independent (5 Aug) that “the fact that there is a greater proportion of privately educated athletes in Team GB than across the population has everything to do with issues of wealth and investment, and nothing to do with this alleged bias against competitive sport.”

The fact is that in 2008 the great majority of medals and medallists came from comprehensive school backgrounds. Of 59 medal winners, 37 went to state schools, 17 went to private schools and five had mixed secondary educations or were raised outside the UK. This ratio was reflected amongst Gold, Silver and Bronze medallists. The tally for London 2012 at the time of writing looks no more impressive for the independent sector, which has so far produced 20 of 68 medal winners, a figure itself somewhat exaggerated by the fours and eights of the more heavily private-sector rowing teams.

Of course Zara Phillips’s alma mater Millfield supplied four medallists on its own; we know that Sir Chris Hoy went to George Watson’s College in Edinburgh, and that half (but only just half) of the successful rowers were privately educated. But most of Hoy’s fellow cyclists, along with Jessica Ennis, Andy Murray, Victoria Pendleton, Greg Rutherford, Mo Farah, Rebecca Adlington and Bradley Wiggins, went to their local state school.

So why did Moynihan make this extraordinary claim, and why was it received with such credulity?

Moynihan’s agenda became clearer the morning after
Team GB’s success on ’Super Saturday’, when he pressed home his demands for more funding for sport in state schools. "For the last seven years we have been treading water and if we can't do something about it now we never will," Moynihan said. "We are calling on the government today to use the momentum that has created so much inspiration in this country to create practical opportunities in schools."

The statistical blurring of last week now looks like a misconceived attempt to shock the government into action whilst winning over the support of the anti-elitist left. The result was the exact reverse: the right and left retreated to their traditional positions in the blame game, finding Moyinhan’s claims far more useful to their cause than the facts would have been. The media lapped up the storyboard of toffish and forlorn stereotypes with similar relish. The reassuring resonance of elite background and elite performance makes easier copy than the conflicting evidence provided by the real results.

Sporting success must arise from a range of factors far more complex than type of schooling, including other resources and opportunities, family and community support, and personal endeavour. Perhaps at least the media should take the lead in showing that the success of 2012 was a genuinely national success story by asking Lord Moynihan to check his numbers.
Share on Twitter Share on Facebook

Be notified by email of each new post.


Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 06/08/2012 - 15:03

The TES printed a comment piece under the heading "State pupils do have the mettle for medals". Unfortunately, it turned out to be full of praise for independent schools in general and one state boys' school in particular. The caption for the picture said that "Chris Hoy attended an independent school, where sport tends to play a vital role in the lives of pupils. State pupils rarely receive the same chances."


Not true. And what a shame that Team GB's success has been highjacked for political purposes.

Janet Downs's picture
Mon, 06/08/2012 - 15:03

It is a myth that state schools are anti-competitive. I doubt that there is a state school which doesn't have a sports day or that doesn't enter pupils for inter-school competitions. On an earlier thread I pointed out various competitive sports activities which took place in just one week in a small corner of Lincolnshire and Rutland. These included a secondary school which hosted a primary schools cross country event and organised a lacrosse and hockey competition, an indoor athletics tournament for primary school pupils and the final of the country’s largest primary school cross-country league at Rutland Water. These kinds of activities are not unique but members of the "Private education, gooood; state education baaaad" brigade prefer to ignore the evidence.


Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 06/08/2012 - 17:15

What we can celebrate is the clearly superior sporting ethos of the state comprehensive.

Compare Lizzie Armistead's thrilled but graceful reaction to her silver to the snivelling self-pity ( implied derision of silver and bronze medals) of the male rower Zac Purchase ( KIngs Independent School, Worcester) both riverside and the next day in the Observer when he failed to get the gold he and his team mate somehow believed was their right.

Bradley Wiggins ( state comprehensive..hurrah) may have said "It's the Golds that count" but this was not arrogance but an act of integrity to defuse the media from trying to ignite a spat between himself and Steve Redgrave ( as they had so successfully done between Redgrave and Daley Thompson before the games over who should light the Olympic torch) .

Zac Purchase bleated in the Observer that "sport is about winners and losers ; can't see him being recurited as an inner city sport ambassador anytime soon then.

Dapple grey's picture
Mon, 06/08/2012 - 20:36

Zac Purchase was so exhausted he could hardly move. His reaction was hardly "snivelling self pity". What an unpleasant and spiteful comment of yours.

Rosie Fergusson's picture
Mon, 06/08/2012 - 22:14

Dapple Grey; Truth hurts I'm afraid. Try reading the Observer article when one would have expected that Zac had had time to recover some dignity.....he writes " we were there to win gold, nothing else, Even though I'm holding a silver medal , it still feels completely heart-wrenching..........I cannot imagine ever being able to derive any consolation from the race outcome. The whole point about sport is that you have winners and losers.It's important for people to keep that in mind. Getting medals for taking part is not what it's about; it's about getting medals for winning"

Compare this to the Beijing 400m Olympic champion Christine Ohuruogu who conceded her title to Sanya Richards-Ross in London. At her immediate post race interview she reluctantly and only after some thought admitted she was disappointed to lose the title but this was with a graceful smile and acknowledgement of her rival's performance.

KPurce's picture
Mon, 06/08/2012 - 22:32

Reads like serious ego damage and self pity to me.

Dave's picture
Mon, 06/08/2012 - 22:19

I can just see Seb Coe dropping the "Inspire a Generation" and adopting " Sports about winners and losers " as his legacy slogan .

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 07/08/2012 - 07:02

Dave - I would go further. I can see the slogan being adapted for all English schools: "Education's about winners and losers".

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 07/08/2012 - 07:36

According to the Guardian, Gove has approved the sale of 20 school playing fields since the Coalition came to power despite a pledge to protect them. In Opposition, the Conservativesdescribed the disposal of playing fields as a betrayal of Labour’s endorsement of school sport.


However, during the last Tory administration (1979-1997), a 2008 Freedom of Information (FoI) request revealed there were an estimated 10,000 playing fields sold during these years although it’s unclear how many would have been attached to schools that closed.

Between 1997 and 2008 (Labour years) the FoI request found, “192 playing fields have been sold out of total of over 20,000 schools... 91 belonged to schools that were closing, 83 of those that remained open used the sale to improve their sports facilities and the remaining 18 improved their educational facilities.”

According to the Guardian, a further 10 requests for the disposal of playing fields were granted in 2009, the last full year of Labour government, while 11 were granted consent in 2008.


In opposition, the Tories described the sale of school playing fields as a betrayal of Labour's commitment to school sport but only 213 closed under Labour and an estimated 10,000 under Conservatives. And it was Gove that cut funding for Schools Sports Partnerships.

Sarah's picture
Tue, 07/08/2012 - 13:16

Whilst I think it is excellent to protect playing fields for the use of young people and the community there always needs to be the flexibilty to dispose of playing fields when a school closes or where there is surplus land and a capital receipt can facilitate the improvement of other sports facilities. Some local authorities built their BSF programmes around selling off surplus land (including playing fields) as a means of filling an affordability gap between the cost of replacing schools and the funding provided.

However, most local authorities dispose of school playing field land reluctantly. The process for getting approval is stringent - a whole range of local stakeholders have the opportunity to comment and Sports England is involved in making the recommendation that goes to the SoS. 21 disposals is not that many - and a lot of these have been waiting in a queue created by the current SoS by insisting that every single potential disposal passes through the free school unit at DfE to see whether it might be a suitable site for a free school. There are strict conditions about the use of capital receipts from playing field land - it has to go back into local sports or education facilities. In some cases approvals are turned down when there is no viable use for the fields as sports pitches due to their location, condition or other particular constraints such as gradient, drainage, presence of trees etc. In these cases the land just goes to wilderness and then has to be maintained at the expense of the tax payer - in those case it would be better to allow a disposal to take place.

So I don't think this is a significant issue - what's much more significant is the cutting of capital which has stopped schools and local authorities from upgrading their sports facilities, many of which are still very poor. Not to mention the proposed changes to school funding which will put real pressure on areas of the curriculum such as PE.

The cutting of the Schools Sports Partnership funding was another own goal which will hinder efforts at making sport more accessible to our young people. Cuts to funding for Youth and Extended School services will also have a detrimental effect on the ability which schools have to staff and run extra curricular activities. Also watch out for significant cuts in leisure services on the back of the swingeing cuts to local authorities - this is where our young people access sports halls, swimming pools, sports pitches and other facilities encouraging participation in sport.

There is a huge amount this government could do to promote sports in schools if they considered it a high priority. Current policy direction indicates the opposite.

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 07/08/2012 - 14:42

Thanks Sarah for the useful info. I only mentioned the selling-off of playing fields because it featured in the TES article linked in my first post above. The writer was giving the disposal of playing fields as one of the reasons why state schools couldn't compete with independent schools and why "independent schools are now dominating the elite sporting sphere."

Adrian Elliott's picture
Tue, 07/08/2012 - 14:48

Are you sure about the figure of 10,000 Janet for 1979-97. It seems an incredibly high figure - half the present number of schools in the country. Is it actually a reflection of the number of schools which closed during that period?

Janet Downs's picture
Tue, 07/08/2012 - 14:55

Adrian - the FoI request said the 10,000 was only an estimate and, as I said, it's unclear how many belonged to schools that closed. I don't know how many schools did close between 1979-97 but there were a few thousand, I think.

Janet Downs's picture
Wed, 08/08/2012 - 07:27

Fullfact reported the proportion of 11-15 year old boys and girls who took part in competitive sports from Jan-Mar 2011. These show that 79.1% of boys and 69.9% of girls took part in competitive sports during school PE lessons. The number for playing in a sports team drops – 51.1% of boys and 29.3% of girls – as do the figures for being a member of a sports club (37.6% of boys and 25% of girls). 50% of boys and 37% of girls played in organised competitions.

It should be remember, however, that physical education is not just about competitive sports. The figures don’t include participation in non-competitive sports such as swimming for the fun of it, aerobics, dance and so on.

However, the figures reveal that 8 out of 10 11-15 yr old boys, and 7 out of 10 11-15 yr old girls take part in competitive sport in school PE lessons. This shows that competitive sport is not dead in English state schools as some ill-informed pundits claim.


Adrian Elliott's picture
Thu, 09/08/2012 - 07:31

Excellent post Matt.

David Cameron has now waded into the debate spouting the 'all must have prizes' nonsense.
As John Harris pointed out in the Guardian Margaret Thatcher set up a review of this whole issue in the 1980s which found no evidence of an anti-competitive sport ethos in the state sector.

Nor did another independent commission , led by a QC, set up under the ILEA. He found only 6 schools,all primary,out of over 500 in London where the head and or governors opposed competitive sport.

When I was researching the whole issue of state school performance for a book a few years ago, I wrote to every member of the ASCL council (then SHA) and asked if they had ever come across ideological opposition to competitive sport in any school they had taught in or had dealings with. Not one had and the strongest rebuttal (we are referring to state schools of course) came from the independent school representative. I've never met it either in over forty years of working in and with state schools.

The link which right wing newspapers liked to make in the more recent past between this mythical opposition to sport and our lack of success in international competition is now clearly revealed as ludicrous.

Between 1948 and 1976, when we can assume all the athletes had been taught by people like Brian Glover (the PE teacher in KES), GB won a total of 28 gold medals - a figure we are not far short of in 2012 - in eight Olympics Games!

Even if we strip out all the independent school educated athletes from the medals totals in 2008 and 2012 we are doing far better now than we did then. And actually if you look at
sports we won the medals in between 48 and 76, I suspect the vast majority were independently educated anyway.

Janet Downs's picture
Thu, 09/08/2012 - 07:56

Adrian - another ill-informed right-wing journalist publishes malicious propaganda about the so-called anti-competitive spirit in state schools below:


As you say, it is ludicrous that this stereotype is still peddled by commentators and politicians. Even the PM spouted this drivel in March 2012:

"We allowed an ideology to take hold that was deeply corrosive... That competitive sports are a bad thing. That all must have prizes."


But the evidence doesn't back this up. The data doesn't (see my post above re Fullfact's findings); your evidence doesn't back this up; and evidence on the ground about what's happening nationwide doesn't back this up.


Janet Downs's picture
Sun, 12/08/2012 - 08:12

Fullfact researched the stats behind the "21 playing fields closed by Gove" headlines and concluded: "While it is true that 21 (and seemingly 22) school sports fields have been closed since May 2010, not all of the news reports made adequately clear the finer detail behind the closures. The DfE confirm that, in 14 cases, the school itself had also closed, and in additional cases the playing fields were removed after they became surplus to requirement. This isn't to say necessarily that overall facilities per student have improved, but in fairness to the DfE they provide explanations for each of the closures along with evidence of redevelpoment of other sports facilties to make up for the lost ground. So it seems that school sports field closures are unlikely to be the big threat to the UK's Olympics legacy they were made out to be by some this week. At least, not those that have closed so far."

Of course, this analysis doesn't investigate the sale of school playing fields during the last Government and previous Conservative governments (when an estimated 10,000 fields were sold). But both parties make political points about the sale of school playing fields despite the fact that it might not necessarily have a negative impact on sports involvement.


Janet Downs's picture
Sat, 18/08/2012 - 16:53

BBC Radio 4 “More or Less” investigated the claim that 10,000 playing fields had gone under the Tory administrations of Thatcher and Major. The programme concluded it was a “Zombie statistic” – a dubious figure which gains credence through much repetition and is almost impossible to debunk. The 10,000 figure was calculated in the early 80s by Labour who found the number of playing fields (or parts of fields) sold off by grant-maintained schools and applied the rate of selling to local authority fields. This figure was then multiplied by the number of years the Tories had been in power (I hope I got this right).

The programme discovered that about 3,000 schools had closed or merged during this period and one statistician said the number of playing fields disposed of would have been in the thousands. However, the figure of 10,000 is at best a guestimate.


Add new comment

Already a member? Click here to log in before you comment. Or register with us.