Eh? We do?

We know that sporting talent will be randomly distributed among the 700,000 babies born every year.

Is this some ignorance of genetics from Will Hutton? We would rather expect that sporting talent will be more common in those born to parents with sporting talent, wouldn’t we?

This matters. There is growing concern that too much of Britain’s elite sport is occupied by athletes educated at private schools: for example, 41 % of the medals won at the 2012 Olympics went to the privately educated. We know that sporting talent will be randomly distributed among the 700,000 babies born every year. Yet the British system ensures that it will be those lucky enough to be born into households rich enough to educate them privately that will have the best chance to lift their natural sporting ability to Olympic standards. By any moral code, this is not fair, but beyond morality this is a huge squandering of talent.

And the entire idea there is flawed because it’s not looking at the entirety of sport. Agreed, those born into wealthier families are more likely to, if they have the requisite talents, shine on horseback or in rowing. But how many middle class or upper middle class footballers are there? Class (or income, not the same thing in the UK, obviously) might well influence which sport the talented pick up but that isn’t the same as saying that the underprivileged do not have an opportunity in all sports.

The same is true of intellectual and academic ability. The Sutton Trust reports that four private schools and one sixth form college in Cambridge send as many students to Oxbridge as nearly 2,000 state schools. Are we to believe that native academic ability is uniquely concentrated in the children of parents rich enough to afford to pay the fees (or live in the catchment area of Hills Road sixth form college, Cambridge)?

Genetics again Will. For yes, we do rather think that the children of all of those Cambridge academics have something of a leg up in intelligence. For intelligence is indeed inheritable (with regression to the mean etc). And even if you want to insist that intelligence is randomly distributed (something which it cannot be for if it were it would never have emerged in the first place) then yes, we’d still expect that children growing up in the groves of academe are going to do quite well in academe.

Actually, there could be a fascinating paper in this. Why don’t the Oxford schools display the same results? Are the catchment areas different, there being no one school that gets all the professors’ kids? Are more privately educated in Oxford?

29 comments on “Eh? We do?

  1. Is the fact that none of the equestrian gold medal winners sported tattoos or dreadlocks a prime example of #FirstWorldProblems?

  2. Cambridge is a university with a small town around it. Oxford is a pretty large town with a university in it. Most of Oxford is a dump, verging in places towards a slum. Thus,a smaller proportion of the Oxford population are connected to academe than in Cambridge.

    Which may account largely for Tim’s final comment.

  3. @abacab

    Captain Blackadder: I then leapt on the opportunity to test you. I asked if he’d been to one of the great universities, Oxford, Cambridge, or Hull.
    Nurse Mary: Well?
    Captain Blackadder: You failed to spot that only two of those are great Universities.
    Nurse Mary: Swine!
    General Melchett: That’s right! Oxford’s a complete dump!

  4. Talking of dumps, if you go to The Cock Inn at Hemingford Grey near Cambridge, Blackadder is played via amps into les pissoirs. Its a neat little idea to while away a couple of minutes, cheers you up to a silly extent, and beats the ubiquitous drone of music into a cocked hat.

  5. I suppose to Will Hutton it is a source of wonder that tall parents seem to have more than their “fair share” of tall children.

  6. Excuse me while I go and tell my son that despite having parents with a combined weight equal to one Wladimir Klitschko, he will one day be heavyweight champion of the world.

    Boxing, one of the the most fundamental of sports, effectively has allowances for genetics built in to it’s rules.

  7. Not for the first time we have a class warrior assuming the ultimate desire of ŵorking class kids is to attend Oxbridge. Maybe working class kids don’t go to Oxford because, quite sensibly, they prefer to go to Manchester. I knew at least one girl in Manchester who would have waltzed into Oxbridge on academic ability alone but, being the child of a single mother who was a nurse, thought she’d enjoy herself more socially in Manchester.

  8. The solution to his winge:
    Make it possible to fire incompetent teachers and academics.
    Reward good ones with bonuses and promotions.

    There. Job done.

  9. Yet the British system ensures that it will be those lucky enough to be born into households rich enough to educate them privately that will have the best chance to lift their natural sporting ability to Olympic standards.

    So even if we accept his premise, that a private education gives children the best chance to realise their natural sporting abilities, does he then go on to demand that our shit state education factories raise their own games to compete with the best?

    By any moral code, this is not fair, but beyond morality this is a huge squandering of talent.

    Surprise! No, the best must be dragged down to the level of the bog-standard comps. According to his evil, twisted, ideology, all talent must be equally squandered.

    And the same holds for all subjects, not just sports.

  10. Dear God, I loath the word ‘elite’. Like ‘front line’ its become so debased its become a byword for the mundane and useless in public service and sport. The two being indistinguishable as both seem to have their snouts firmly in the trough of the public purse, and performance is no longer a consideration because of that.

  11. I wonder how sincere is Willy’s attachment to meritocracy. After all, if jobs were distributed on merit alone he’d be driving a cab, not running a think tank or writing think pieces.

  12. I thought the left hated competition and excellence in sport. Have they changed again?

    It isn’t money which drives academic excellence in children, but attitude, both of the kids themselves and the parents. How would a 10% increase! or a 20% increase in the incomes of the bottom fifth result in more of their children going to elite colleges, or winning gold medals in sport?

  13. “There is growing concern that too much of Britain’s elite sport is occupied by athletes educated at private schools”

    So, what does Hutton consider an “elite sport”? Oh yes, it’s a sport practised by private schools, so he’s answered his own question. Realistically you should be praising private education for bothering to train people in “elite sports”, because the crappy mainstream orientated public education certainly wont bother.

  14. Let’s take Will and his hypothesis completely at face value (after all, Michael Gove has said similar things). Well it wasn’t always like this. In the 1960s this gap had narrowed right down. The came comprehensive education. In fact it wasn’t like this in 1997 at he start on the New Labour project with which he so wanted to be associated.

    The fault here – if the is a fault as such – lies with Will and his friends in the educational establishment. Pure and simple.

  15. i meen woss this bloks game i got 5 a levels and tryed to get a job on a paper but the geezer siad i cud spress meself reely well but me speling and grama was not upter scratch wot me granmas rash as got to do wiv it i dunno but i reckon issa reel shame i was tol at skool i dun reel good

  16. Child of a chum: My school in Cambridge was so competitive that I didn’t win any prizes. I got a few afterwards, at Oxford.

  17. “four private schools and one sixth form college in Cambridge send as many students to Oxbridge as nearly 2,000 state schools”: a few years ago, the Head of said 6th Form College was asked how many of his Oxbridge-bound pupils had attended a private school before they attended his. His evasive non-reply suggested to me that the answer might be “most”.

  18. Though it’s doubtless true that sporting talent, like any other, is partly genetic in origin, there’s no need to assume that if your purpose is just to point out Hutton’s stupidity. Since most children are brought up (at least partly) by their own parents, if sporting talent were entirely a matter of upbringing in the family, different habits of raising children would still result in “sporting talent will be randomly distributed among the 700,000 babies born every year” being utter rubbish. Whether inheritance be by nature or nurture, Hutton is being a tit.

  19. I just had my DNA test analysed for health strengths and risks. Good news was a mutation for ‘better performing muscles’ commonly found in sprinters and power sports people. About 20% of Europeans have it. Not clear how solid the prediction is, since sample sizes are still small. But I have in fact been a runner most of my life.
    (The testers also said I was aggressive and antisocial. Bastards.)

  20. Winning an Olympic medal pays nothing.

    So they are griping that there is not equal opportunity to win NOTHING?

  21. “Randomly distributed” does not have to mean that everyone has an equal chance of getting it; only if the underlying distribution is the uniform distribution does that follow.

  22. FTAOD, that doesn’t stop Willy from being an idiot: the rest of his piece indicates that he, like Tim, thinks “uniformly distributed” and “randomly distributed” are equivalent statements. Unlike Tim, he doesn’t immediately recognise than uniform distribution is not a plausible model for the world.

  23. Ironman

    Well, it does invalidate the part of Tim’s post about Cambridge academics and the question about Oxford.

    It is true that sporting ability and intellect is not randomly distributed – the genetics point.

  24. Someone has done a (not very scientific) survey. He compared the number if relatives playing international cricket with relatives playing international football. Nearly everyone gets the chance to play football, only some get to play cricket. Guess what? Cricket runs in families more than football.

  25. The whole thing is an exercise in question-begging. Hutton writes: “There is growing concern that too much of Britain’s elite sport is occupied by athletes educated at private schools”

    No there isn’t. NO-ONE GIVES THE TEENSIEST, TINIEST, MOST EVANESCENT FUCK ABOUT THIS. Except, that is, for grievance-mongering tossers like Hutton. The entire power of the Large Hadron Collider could be bent on determining the degree of concern people have about this issue and it would come up short. The hutton: hypothetical spin-three, weakly interacting particle proposed as reason why Guardian articles are such tendentious shite.

  26. Of course anything I say from personal experience can be dismissed as just anecdata but there are too many examples in both my experience/observation and the public arena to dismiss it as anecdote. Broad, Compton, Cowdrey, Graveney Hutton* immediately come to mind in cricket, Milburn/Charlton and Charles in football, the Williams sisters in tennis (and Andy Murray’s big brother was a better prospect as a teenager). Mohammed Ali’s daughter was near the top of women’s boxing; Seb Coe’s father was a talented athlete before he took up coaching; in the minority sport of race walking we sent only one guy to each of the last two Olympics: they are identical twins [both should have gone to both but one picked up an injury in 2008 and the other did so in 2012]. I have encountered scores of dynasties of talented amateur sportsmen/women (in one case I have been beaten by three generations of the same family, albeit not all in the same race: I occasionally beat the grandfather); my favourite sparring partner at school was the son of my father’s favourite sparring partner…
    I think Tim is looking at “talent” as being innate ability that can be developed whereas dearieme is correct if “talent” is being the development of innate ability, which latter includes the effort put into regular training. Both are correct, and Will Hutton is wrong, whichever definition one uses.
    I am inclined to support Tim for the not-very-scientific reason that I am part of a family which has drifted apart for geographical reasons as much as any other and I find that most of my cousins have significantly overlapping academic and sporting “talents”, if you can call them that at our level: there are a lot of mathematicians and/or programmers and a lot of long-distance runners.

    *Richard played a few Tests and both boys both played well for Yorkshire, which used to occasionally perform better than the England team: I shall never forget that when the England selectors dropped Fred Trueman, Yorkshire dropped Brian Close, the England captain, for their match against India and won by a bigger margin.

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