Why England's sports teams are dominated by the privately educated

The proportion of those on the smallest incomes participating in sport has reached a new low.

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When the Rugby World Cup quarter-finals begin tomorrow, the hosts will be conspicuous by their absence: England were knocked out of their own World Cup after just 15 days. The defeats to Wales and Australia reflected something far deeper than rugby: how English sports teams are suffering from an over-dependence on the seven per cent of the population who attend private schools.

In 2003 only 11 members of England's triumphant World Cup squad were educated at fee-paying schools. This year 20 of their squad attended private schools, as did 61 per cent of English players in the Rugby Union Premiership. The sport is “missing out on a wide range of potential players from large parts of the country,” says Andy Reed OBE, the Director of Sports Think Tank. “Broadening the base of players and fans would be a real benefit to the game.”

It’s not only in rugby that former private school pupils are increasingly over-represented. A third of current England sporting international have attended independent schools, an Oftsed report last year revealed. In both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics, 37 per cent of Team GB’s medals were won by athletes educated at private schools, compared with 26 per cent in 2004.

The England cricket team is also increasingly the preserve of those who went to private schools. Eight of the eleven who played the first Test against the West Indies in April attended independent schools, compared with just three of the 12 players used in the Ashes victory a decade ago. In 1987 only one out of 13 players who made the squad against Pakistan came from a private, fee-paying school.

Growing up in north London in the 1970s, Phillip DeFreitas learned cricket playing with a tennis ball on the artificial wicket and three concrete nets at Willesden High School. “It helped me love the game and showed me how much I enjoyed it, which encouraged me to join a club side.” DeFreitas went on to play 44 Test matches for England, but he fears that this would not have been possible if he were growing up today. “I drove by the school recently. Those facilities don’t exist any more. It’s a little bit sad, really.”

During the Conservative governments of 1979 to 1997, more than 10,000 school playing fields across Britain were sold off. A further 200 were sold off under Labour between 1997 and 2010. There has been no concerted attempt to replace playing fields that have already been relinquished. “You’re looking at state schools and the thing that keeps cropping up is the facilities,” De­Freitas says. “If you haven’t got facilities how can you encourage kids to play sport?” To James Allen, head of policy at the Sport and Recreation Alliance, it has become “too easy to build a housing development without explaining how opportunities for people to be active in that area would be maintained”. But playing fields count for little if they are not looked after. “Existing facilities are, in many cases, nowhere near as good as they should be,” Allen says.

The paucity of good quality playing fields is only part of the problem. Money for PE and sport for young people has not been ring-fenced. Although the government has set aside £150m for the Primary PE and Sport Premium, which helps junior schools improve the quality and quantity of sporting activity for pupils, this amounts to £35 per child. The total is less than the annual £162m awarded to school sport partnerships, which fulfilled a role similar to the Sport Premium until they were abolished in 2010. Few state schools today have a vibrant sporting culture. Last year, just 13 per cent of head teachers said they expected all students to take part in competitive sport, prompting Ofsted’s chief inspector, Michael Wilshaw, to bemoan that it had become an “optional extra” in many schools. Data on school sport has become “very, very patchy”, Allen says. This is not merely a bureaucratic issue: poor information makes it harder to hold state schools that cut provision to account.

Attitudes to school sport might be another problem. “There’s a completely ridiculous notion that everybody needs to go home with a certificate or else their feelings will be hurt,” says Wasim Khan, a former first-class cricketer who was chief executive of Chance to Shine, a charity that focuses on taking cricket to state schools. “What’s life about?”

For too many talented sportsmen at state schools, the chance of fulfilling their promise depends on “complete luck”, as Khan puts it; he attributes his professional cricket career to being spotted by a cricket-mad teacher at school in Birmingham. “Kids from state schools aren’t given a fair crack of the whip from a very young age,” he says, citing the lack of specialised PE teachers in primary schools as “a massive issue”. He believes many teachers don’t want to play anything other than football because they are uncertain of the rules. For children who play sport informally outside school, there are few avenues to nurture their potential. “We’re very formal in terms of how we identify talent in this country, in both cricket and other sports,” Khan says. This is one explanation for why British Asians account for 30 per cent of the country’s grass-roots cricketers but only 6 per cent of professionals.

The situation beyond the school grounds does not provide any solace. The proportion of people on the smallest incomes participating in sport has reached its lowest point since Sport England records began a decade ago. “Sport is becoming less and less accessible,” Reed says. “Social class is now your greatest determinant to access to sports facilities. In lots of deprived communities across the country sports facilities have disappeared.”

As local authorities have had their funding from central government cut – the budget for 2016 will be 37 per cent less in real terms than that for 2010 – they have not given priority to protecting sports facilities. Hire charges are increasing while the quality of free facilities is diminishing. It does not help, either, that ticket prices are increasing and many flagship events are only available on pay TV. After 61 years on the BBC, the Open Championship golf tournament will be moving to Sky in 2017, while every England cricket international since 2005 has been broadcast exclusively on Sky Sports. 

“There’s got to be a balance struck,” Khan says. “We’d love to have a Test match on terrestrial TV during the summer holidays that isn’t available for Sky to buy within their package.” The final day of England’s victory in the first Test of the Ashes in July had a viewing figure of just 467,000, compared to the average 2.5 million who watched each of the five Tests in the 2005 Ashes series, which was shown live on Channel 4.

Meanwhile sport in private schools has been transformed in recent decades. Coaching and facilities have improved “significantly” in the past 15 years, says David Faulkner, the director of sport at Millfield, which boasts that nearly 50 Millfield alumni play international sport every year. Faulkner cites three elements underpinning this record: the philosophy of “always putting the individual first”; the level of investment in coaching; and the array of facilities, which include a 50-metre pool, a nine-hole golf course and 13 tennis courts. A new equestrian cross-country course, designed by Adrian Ditcham, who also designed the 2012 Olympic course, opened this year at the school. Today, 17 former professional sportsmen are among the school’s coaches. The most talented pupils have access to ­nutritional advice and tailor-made strength and fitness programmes.

Little wonder that three of England’s World Cup rugby squad, including the captain Chris Robshaw, attended Millfield. It is true that Millfield and other private schools offer sports scholarships (though the number of these at Millfield has not increased in recent years, Faulker says) but these should not be relied upon as a panacea. Those who get sports scholarships are often relatively well off – they are “almost self-selecting,” Reed says - while they do nothing for late developers.  

DeFreitas predicts that the dominance of England sports teams by those from private schools will only continue to get more pronounced. He is now a coach at Magdalen College School in Oxford, where parents pay £16,275 a year for children to enjoy his expertise.

“At state schools they might only play cricket once in a while,” DeFreitas says. “At private schools you’re practising, you’re getting one-on-one coaching, you’re playing regular fixtures and you’ve got proper facilities.” All of this highlights an unpalatable truth: whatever the state sector does to improve, the independent sector has the capacity to do far more. The government “will never close the gap completely” between private and state schools, Khan acknowledges.

Without a revolution in school sport, disappointment will remain familiar to England sporting teams. “The squeeze on sport and PE in the state sector may mean there are potential world champions who have never had the opportunity to try the sport that would suit their ability and talent,” Reed warns. “We may be missing out on a generation of world class athletes.”

Tim Wigmore is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and the author of Second XI: Cricket In Its Outposts.

This article appears in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis