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The Inverted Economics of Independent School Sport

by Neil Rollings

Provision for high performance in school sport has never been more extensive, or of higher quality.  There are more staff, more specialist coaches, conditioners, analysts and physiotherapists than ever before.  This has led to an increase in training times, individual programmes, one to one sessions and visits from a glittering array of inspirational speakers.  It is a truly premium product.

All of this comes at a cost.  Schools have never spent more on the pursuit of sporting victories – nor on the recruitment of able and promising performers.  The oxymoronic concept of a Sports Scholarship has become the currency of choice for many schools, seeking the perceived advantages of winning school matches.

The irony of this is that the pupils who pay the least in school fees often get a disproportionately good experience when compared to the full fee payer.  Whilst a school’s best teams enjoy all the benefits of lavish and improved sport, the leading performers – the ones enjoying the greatest benefits – are the ones that pay least.  This is in contrast to almost every other industry, where premium products are usually priced accordingly.

So, whilst the hired assassins enjoy the best coaching from elite coaches, on the best facilities the sector has ever known, informed by the most recent sports science, with the most advanced  kit and equipment available, what happens in the rest of the programme?  The beleaguered full fee payer is sentenced to the walk of shame to distant fields, to play in an undervalued C team which suffers the least competent coaching and has three matches in the entire term (one of which is always cancelled). 

The provision of a high quality programme is a legitimate ambition for all schools – in all subject areas.  However, raising the quality in one area presents a challenge of quality control to ensure a better experience for all.  Otherwise, it creates a version of apartheid, where quality is often inversely correlated with price.

Sports scholarships should not be mistaken for the charitable purpose of an independent school, currently under unprecedented political pressure.  Means tested bursaries, providing meritocratic life chances, are a wholly different issue.  The unseemly auction of the best players at age 13 and 16, in which a small number of schools and parents shamelessly participate, is driven by the principles of economics, not charity.

There is a glass ceiling to the level of performance that a school can consistently achieve without a degree of proactive recruitment of pupils on grounds of sporting ability. That is the harsh reality.  It benefits the best players to play with and against each other each week, and to be part of well-resourced and inspiring programmes.  The level of fee discounting that this attracts needs to be carefully controlled, and transparently applied by all schools.  The shabby auction, surrounded by rumour and marginal practices, reflects poorly on the sector.  And is unfair to the full fee payer, especially when combined with a failure of quality control to ensure that a good experience is not ability based.

The sports “scholarship” industry has a relatively recent, and unregulated, history.  It has a poor reputation.  A self-regulated, and ethical approach, is long overdue.