The Olympics – temporary magic or sporting legacy?

Another glorious Olympic summer has ended. Once again, the Olympics have worked their temporary magic and we have all become armchair experts absorbed in the intricacies of equestrian dressage, the tactics of water polo and the unfeasible number of ways in which it is possible to travel across a pommel horse and once again it is time to pack all that knowledge away for another four years.

This year’s Olympics has been the cue for much celebration but also much reflection on the legacy of Great Britain’s own games only four years ago. Much was made in 2012 of the over representation of independently educated sportsmen and women in Team GB’s home Olympics with a third of medal winners coming from fee-paying schools (many benefitting from bursaries and scholarships) and this share has been repeated in 2016.

Much of the over representation of independently educated in Olympic sport is related to facilities and funding. (No-one ever raises concerns about under representation of state educated youngsters in professional football where funding for developing talent is plentiful.)  Yet despite continued protestations that money is being invested in sport in schools (some £320 million promised for next year through the primary PE and sport premium) vital school playing fields continue to be lost to development with 95 school fields sold off in the three and a half years that the followed the end of the 2012 Games – at a rate of two playing fields a month. There has also been a dramatic drop in the number of grass roots sports coaches capable of teaching school sport with a drop of 65% in Level One coaches between 2011 and 2015 and a drop of 23% in more advanced Level 2 coaches.

Crucially, the primary commitment of independent schools to sport is to participation and enjoyment. Schools are not fundamentally driven by a desire to create a small number of elite athletes but by a commitment to providing opportunities for all their pupils to participate in sport as a foundation for a healthy lifestyle and, yes, to the development of that very traditional public school word ‘character’ and its more modern equivalent ‘resilience.’ Sir Peter Lampl, Chair of the Sutton Trust, which works to improve educational opportunity for all young people, recognises that ‘Too often we allow pupils to adopt a negative mentality that limits their development. Independent Schools enable their pupils to develop the essential life skills that give them a competitive edge, not just in sport but in professional life — to become better communicators, to develop social skills, confidence, high aspirations and more resilience.’

Given this capacity of sport to encourage aspiration in all aspects of a young person’s life, I am particularly heartened as Headmistress of a girls’ school, to see the prominence given to women’s sporting achievement in the Olympics. Building on the work of campaigns such as ‘This Girl Can’ and ‘Like a Girl’, we are now seeing more coverage of women’s sport in the media and more female faces presenting sports programmes on television. Silver medal winning Olympic swimmer, Siobhan O’Connor, talks convincingly about the impact that the equal media coverage of men’s and women’s swimming has on the numbers of young women taking up the sport and her hopes for the positive impact that such equal coverage might have on women’s team sport. ‘I would love for girls to believe in themselves and have the confidence to do what they would like to do without feeling like they shouldn’t, whether that’s sport, the arts or any other passion.’

Parents and teachers recognise the transformative effect of a child finding a passion in life whether that is academic, sporting or artistic. Schools’ commitment to sport is emblematic of their dedication to educating the whole child; to providing breadth of opportunity for each child to explore their interests and to develop their talents. The omission of artistic and practical subjects from the EBACC (the basket of GCSE subjects by which the government will measure the success of state secondary schools) gives genuine cause for concern that the importance of sport, music, drama and the arts risks becoming undervalued in the school curriculum but the best schools will continue to commit to leaving their pupils with a lasting educational legacy – a love of learning both within and beyond the classroom.


Angela Drew,  Headmistress,  Bromley High School

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