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Educational backgrounds of British professional athletes, by sport and gender

The relationship between sport, education and social class in Britain is extremely complex and variable across different sports and genders. This statistic presents the share of different educational structures attended by British professional athletes across a range of sporting disciplines.
Men's cricket had the highest levels of privately educated professional athletes of the sports included within this statistic, with 43 percent of the English men's cricket team having received a private education. Female cricketers had the lowest rate of comprehensive attendance, with 35 percent having attended private schools.
The educational backgrounds of British female rugby union internationals differ to those of the men. Where 37 percent of men's British rugby union internationals having attended private schools, with only 47 percent having attended a state comprehensive. The women's British rugby union internationals educational background was more in line with football but still double the national average, with 82 percent having attended comprehensive schools and 13 percent having received private education.

Football

Men’s football has long been a game where professional players leave the education system at an early age, with the pathways to elite level participation largely through the club and league structures. Consequently male football professionals have the lowest rates of privately educated participants within this statistic.
The differences between male and female football professionals provides an insight into the differing opportunities for financial reward. Although the school backgrounds were comparable between male and female football professionals, reflecting similar social groups playing the game at grassroots level. However, high university attendance amongst female football professionals is likely due to the lower levels of financial compensation in women’s sport. The England team at the 2019 Women’s Football World Cup is the first fully professional team the country has ever had, and the Scottish team still features many part-time players.

Private Education

Many of the sports within this statistic, particularly those with a history of amateur participation, include school or university competition as a step on the ladder to success.
Sports which require expensive equipment or special facilities lead to a more socially exclusive participant base. Many private schools have sufficient funding to invest heavily in high quality indoor and outdoor facilities for cricket, rugby, hockey, rowing, cycling, sailing and equestrianism. Within these sports the pathway to elite level participation is heavily associated with school or university level participation

Olympics

The educational backgrounds of British Olympic medalists shown within this statistic is illustrates a complex relationship between the relationship between sport, education and social class in Britain.
Within the international sporting tournaments, such as the Olympic Games, Team GB has historically excelled at ‘sitting down sports’, including rowing, cycling, sailing and equestrianism. These all involve specialized and frequently expensive equipment and facilities, and are sports historically associated with higher social classes. Funding has historically been targeted towards such sports, on the basis that they offer the best chance of medals. Whilst this has been a largely successful tactic with regards to international sporting accolades, it is at the expense of funding more widely played and accessible sports, potentially creating additional barriers to participation.

Distribution of educational background of professional athletes in selected sports in Great Britain as of 2019, by gender

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Source

Release date

June 2019

Region

United Kingdom (Great Britain)

Survey time period

December 2018 - March 2019

Supplementary notes

  • Great British Olympic Medallists Rio Games 2016: Britain’s 130 medallists at the 2016 Olympics games in Rio.
  • Rugby Union (men’s and women’s teams) Women’s: Rugby World Cup 2017 teams (Note: Scotland were not in the World Cup so their six nations team from the same year was instead used) Men’s: Rugby autumn internationals 2018.
  • Football (men’s and women’s teams) Men’s 2018 football World Cup squad/ qualifiers squad Women’s 2017 Euro squads.
  • Cricket (men’s and women’s teams) England squad players who have taken part in an international match over the last year.


  • Schools have been classified into one of three main categories, private, grammar schools and comprehensives. Private schools are classified here as those which are both independent from government, and in which most pupils are fee-paying. Although Direct Grant grammar schools had some spaces paid for by local authorities, they remained outside of government control, and most pupils paid fees, so have therefore been categorised as private schools. These schools represent a small and declining proportion of those in the working age population. All state funded schools have been classified as either grammar or comprehensive, depending on their admissions policies. Grammar schools are schools in which potential pupils sit an entry exam (the 11 plus) which aims to determine whether a student has high academic ability, with admissions decided on the basis of results in this exam. Comprehensive school is used here to cover all state schools which either required no exam for entry, or which did not require a high mark on the 11 plus to attend.

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