The UK has done brilliantly at the Olympic Games. At the time of writing, we have 55 medals at a cost of £6.3m each, based on the investment of some £347m into elite sport since the last Olympics. The UK has a winning sports strategy. Young people are spotted, monitored, put into special programmes, encouraged to win, to prepare their bodies for the ultimate effort, to compete with winning as the goal, and ultimately may be supported with National Lottery money so that they can train full time and not have to work at a job. If they win, not only do they get the glory of the Olympic medal, but lucrative sponsorships, worldwide fame, OBEs, knighthoods, and lifelong benefit.
August has seen the conjunction of two issues about “being the best.” The Olympics. And grammar schools. The latter are largely unpopular. Children are divided into sheep and goats, it is said, with hurtful effect. Try telling that to those of us who were never ever selected for any sporting team throughout all the years of primary, secondary and tertiary education! Why is it alright to encourage natural talent, and nurture it intensively if it relates to sport, but not if it relates to academic aptitude? Why is selection based on an innate talent, and long years of segregation OK for young athletes but not for young students?
Sport certainly achieves social mobility for some, although it has also been alleged that independent schools, with their superior facilities, produce more medal winners proportionately than state schools. Yet private coaching is anathema when it comes to getting into selective schools. From a small sample of my crossbench colleagues, grammar schools certainly helped many of them to where they are now. The effect of selective education is most marked with women. I surmise that parents may have been less likely in the past to pay for private education for girls, so clever ones went to grammar schools, and many women were enabled to reach their full potential with that background. A few names to illustrate the benefits of grammar schools for girls: the PM, Helene Hayman, Brenda Hale, Heather Hallett, Nancy Rothwell, Carol Black, Cathy Ashton, Dawn French, Katharine Viner, Camilla Cavendish, Carol Ann Duffy, Fiona Bruce.
What if we invested £347m into elite education and gave the same push to talented academic students as we give to athletes – and the same adulation? Just saying. . .