Winning - the lessons we can learn

More than two thirds of our Olympic gold medallists were educated at independent schools, according to a survey carried out by 'Education'. Independents don't have a monopoly of excellence, but they do deserve credit for nurturing sport and investing in it, says Jenny Stephen. All schools should encourage sport from primary level onwards. But are the Government's new funding ideas for sport the solution?
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The Independent Online

It has been a good week for Britain's self-esteem in sport. All over the country, countless school assemblies have been based on Steve Redgrave's achievement. Determination, focus, setting targets, self-discipline and the overcoming of adversity - what better role model could there be? And for those who did not gain the gold, the moral has been drawn that if you don't succeed, try, try again.

It has been a good week for Britain's self-esteem in sport. All over the country, countless school assemblies have been based on Steve Redgrave's achievement. Determination, focus, setting targets, self-discipline and the overcoming of adversity - what better role model could there be? And for those who did not gain the gold, the moral has been drawn that if you don't succeed, try, try again.

So what does it take to make us successful in any given sport? It is not simply a matter of that sport being available in schools. Cycling is one of very few sports that hardly appear in any school curriculum, maintained or independent, and precious few children can cycle to school nowadays. It is not just a matter of chucking money at the adult sport. Swimming had £6m invested in 40 competitors at Sydney, yet has failed to bring home any of its usual success. The ingredients for success are cumulative, and complex.

Firstly, the whole business starts in primary schools - not in master classes for the various individual sports, but rather in a wide availability of team and individual sports. A school that wishes to encourage its pupils in music gives them a range of different instruments to play with and hear. In sport it is equally crucial to expose children to the full range of sports so that they can tune in to what suits them best. A concentration on soccer, for example, might reflect our culture, but does little to encourage an interest in sport in general. As it is, we have all but lost sport in our primary schools by selling off the playing fields, and losing the people who used to coach sport. It is not only cultivating the talent that is crucial but creating an ethos in which sport is seen to be a good thing, competing is seen to be a good thing and learning to lose is considered all part of the game.

Secondly, it is carried on in secondary schools. Steve Redgrave may not have learnt rowing at school, but it was a teacher who suggested he went rowing and inspired him. Others among our top rowers profited from the fact that independent schools have invested heavily in rowing as a sport. My own school has just spent £200,000 on a new boathouse.

Pinsent came from a school with a tradition of rowing, Atherton from a school with a tradition of cricket, Carling from a school with a tradition of rugby and Henman from a school with a tradition of tennis. The ethos in independent schools is for the majority of staff to be involved in sports. Make sport the preserve of the PE department and you demand too much of too few. Sporting achievement has to be a whole-school endeavour. The gold medallists come from a seed-bed of sport for all. Independent schools do not have a monopoly of sporting excellence, but they deserve credit for trying harder and longer to nurture sporting talent, and making the capital investment in facilities.

Thirdly, you need a top-flight professional organisation to plan, to fight for funding and to take a long-term view of the development of the sport. Stars of the Amateur Rowing Association have done all these things - and worked to put rowing into maintained as well as independent schools. Their project to provide boats at club level for schools has borne real fruit.

Fourthly, you need a healthy club structure for young people to join while they are at school and when they leave, and the best possible relationship between clubs and schools. It is teamwork that gets success in sport.

Fifthly, you need proper funding for the top-flight athletes, the funding so successfully provided by the lottery over the past three years. Money does not always work, as we have seen in swimming, but you can forget about training as an Olympic rower if you can't feed yourself and only start training after an eight-hour working day.

Sixthly, and when all the above is in place, you can attract the top coaches that you need to refine the top athletics into 24-carat gold material.

The Government is due to announce new funding for sport. Will it do the trick? The danger is that this is likely to be a bolt-on rather than a bolt-through solution. The money seems destined to be spent on pitches, sports co-ordinators and sports colleges. The danger is that it will fall awkwardly between schools and clubs, satisfying the needs of neither and creating a third management tier with no overall or co-ordinated plan. Do we need more sports co-ordinators, or do we first of all need to work to give them more sport to co-ordinate?

A recent report from the University of Arizona suggested that those who partake in sport at school achieve greater success in later life. We need to recognise that we fund sport not just to produce gold medal winners, but to teach people that it's OK to have a go, OK to win and OK to set yourself targets. Sport is about pride in participating, the will to win, about responsibility, overcoming adversity, teamwork and challenging yourself - all the things, in fact, summed up by our Olympic competitors.

The writer is Head of The Grange School, a co-educational independent selective school in Hartford, Cheshire

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