John Minto: Olympic medal hopes nurtured in state schools

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What do James Hargest College in Invercargill and Palmerston North Boys High School have in common?

Aside from being state secondary schools they each have two ex-students who won medals in the London Olympics. Hargest's Nathan Cohen and Storm Uru won gold and bronze respectively in rowing while Palmerston North's Simon van Velthooven and Jesse Sergent each won a bronze in cycling.

No doubt the schools are celebrating these achievements of their ex-students as will the other schools which educated our Olympic champions.

As a country we don't make much of the schools our medal winners attended but in Britain there has been a long-standing debate comparing public and private schools in terms of how many Olympic medals the ex-students from each sector win. This has now been broken down into a sport by sport analysis on the back of comments made recently by the Chair of the British Olympic Association Lord Moynihan who said it was "wholly unacceptable" that half the medals won by the UK in Beijing in 2008 were won by students attending private schools who make up just 7% of the school population. Moynihan said it was "one of the worst statistics in British sport".

Critics have countered that if equestrian and rowing are excluded then the figures are much closer to balancing and blame has been heaped on UK education secretary Michael Gove who on the one hand has talked loudly of the "need to revive competitive sport in British schools" but then cut the state school sports budget by two-thirds.

Conservative UK politicians never pass up an opportunity to bash public education and plenty of others have joined the attack. For nasty bigotry it would be hard to go past media mogul Rupert Murdoch who tweeted early on in the London Games "No wonder China leading in medals while US and UK mainly teach competitive sport a bad thing. How many champions state school background?"

He would have done better to keep his tweet to himself because a welter of medals were won by British Athletes in London with the lion's share going to students from public schools and if rowing and equestrian are taken out "as the sports of the wealthy in Britain " then public school dominance increases.

The UK's Guardian columnist John Harris describes as a stupid prejudice "the idea that thanks to the influence of the leftie teaching establishment, kids at comprehensive schools are more likely to be found singing Blowin' in the Wind and growing mung bean plants than experiencing the character-building wonders of proper sport."

In New Zealand from time to time we've had Murdoch-type comments made about state schools but just as in Britain New Zealand state schools have much to celebrate. All but one of the nine New Zealand athletes who achieved gold in London is an ex state-school student and across our 27 medal winners only three stand out as educated at private secondary schools (two of whom gained medals in sailing which is generally a sport for the well-off in any case) and none from integrated schools.

So we are unlikely to see an outbreak of public school bashing in the Olympic aftermath as occurs in Britain. But we won't hear positive comments either. Can anyone imagine Sports Minister Murray McCully praising state schools for the great job they do in fostering Olympic champions?

National politicians are notoriously loath to praise public schools for anything. Even when our students and teachers get into the top three or four OCED countries for literacy, numeracy and science in the international PISA tests for 15 year olds the government is silent. Instead Prime Minister John Key told the country on national television during last year's election campaign that "our schools are failing our kids" and listening to the likes of ACT politicians you'd think we had banana republic education.

Instead we have a great deal to celebrate in public schooling with its remarkable successes in academic and sporting endeavour. The strength of our public education system is that it's coherent, unfragmented and high quality.

Across the board our schools achieve better academic and sporting success than countries such as the US, UK and Australia which have allowed their public education systems to be fragmented and ravaged by privatisation.

Instead of praise for public schools we have Associate Education Minister (sic) John Banks ranting about alleged public school failure as an argument to privatise state schools using the failed US charter school model. We have a job to do stopping this in New Zealand.
In the meantime congratulations to James Hargest College and Palmerston North Boys High and the other schools which have helped produce our latest Olympic champions.

* John Minto is national chairperson of the Quality Public Education Coalition.

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