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Karl McCartney MP: The problem is not too many privately-educated Olympians - it's the lack of competitive sport in state schools

McCartney KarlKarl McCartney is the Member of Parliament for Lincoln. Follow Karl on Twitter.

The former Chairman of the British Olympic Association, Lord Moynihan, recently sought to initiate a debate about the background and education of our medal winners in the 2012 London Olympics. However his suggestion that the current situation is “wholly unacceptable” fails to take into account the diverse make up of all Team GB members or indeed some of the steps that this Government is taking to increase an active presence of sport in all levels of schools.

We do not need to look too far to find gold-medal winning athletes who have been fully state-educated. Athleticism is a state of mind and application and needs to be nurtured by family, friends, and our teachers at whichever schools we are learning at. Take for example Jessica Ennis, who has become the poster girl for Team GB and was raised in Sheffield, attending a local comprehensive school (King Ecgbert School). Alternatively, consider Bradley Wiggins who also attended a state secondary school, he became the first British winner of the Tour de France and went on to win a gold medal at the Olympics in 2012 and is, it seems, an extremely well grounded, sensible and witty individual with a keen sense of fun. Indeed, when you consider that 70% of our gold medallists attended a state secondary school, it becomes difficult to accept at all Lord Moynihan's, and those of his ilk's, divisive politicised comments.

Whilst I accept that privately educated athletes were disproportionately represented in winning medals at the Olympics for Team GB, what is the problem in that? Their parents were most probably competitive, as their offspring themselves have been to reach where they are now - competition does not seem to have harmed them. Perhaps they have also made sacrifices financially or otherwise for their children to have better education, chances and hence opportunities, be they academic or athletic. Indeed, if you take a look at some of the newspaper publications which featured headlines supporting Lord Moynihan’s comments - you might be surprised at how many of these journalists went to public schools or enjoyed private education themselves, whether through a fully paid for route, the assisted places scheme or its replacements, bursaries, scholarships or the like.

It is important to remember that there were also a great number of sports at the Olympics which were dominated by state educated athletes. In fact out of all the sports in which Team GB saw success, only four of them (diving, equestrian, rowing; and shooting) saw privately educated athletes outnumbering their state educated compatriots. It is this very diversity that we should welcome which has allowed Britain to be the only country to have won at least one gold medal at each of the summer Olympic Games.

The Government is seeking to preserve this success, aiming to provide a strong legacy for sport in Britain, whilst at the same time providing a fresh focus on competitive sport in the school curriculum. However, over a number of years we have seen the emergence of a culture which sought to nullify competitive sport in schools, epitomised by examples of teachers refusing to keep score in sports such as football and rugby for fear of dividing children into “winners” and “losers” or, most ridiculous of all, glorifying "non-competitive" sports days. I for one feel that such a state of affairs is just plain wrong. I was therefore surprised to see that a number of MPs on the Labour benches did not appreciate my Parliamentary Question on Monday 3 September to the Education Secretary, which sought to highlight this culture under the previous Government. Indeed, as Michael Gove acknowledged, this failed policy of seeking to remove competition in school sport still seems to have a strong degree of support in the Labour Party.

However, it is my firm belief that we cannot simply mollycoddle pupils from competition and that such an attitude is hardly conducive to increasing the number of world class athletes in the UK. The crossover to our everyday lives is also plain to see - competitiveness is everywhere. If you do not compete to the best of your ability and win the competition for a job out of many applicants - you do not win that job. This is a very clear simple fact of life and the sooner that lesson is learnt the better.

Although the previous Labour government sought to allocate a considerable sum (£2.4 billion) to its PE and Sports Strategy, too great an emphasis was placed on top-down targets and creating a bureaucracy which failed to drive forward substantive changes. Indeed, despite 225 "competition managers", only one in five state school pupils in England regularly plays competitive sport with another school - that is a damning statistic and we cannot allow this to continue.

That is why this Government has developed a £1 billion sports strategy to encourage young people to play sport for life. An important part of this will be the School Games program which seeks to encourage competitive sport between schools. At the same time, the Government is looking to develop new school-based sports clubs who will provide greater links between schools and one or more sports’ national governing bodies. On a local level, in my constituency of Lincoln, we are fortunate to have a voluntary organisation called Off The Bench, which seeks to encourage young people to take part in competitive sporting activities; however not all areas are as fortunate and therefore as a country, we need to focus on increasing the number of pupils taking part in competitive sports if we wish to see a lasting sports legacy to the London 2012 Olympics.


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