I walked across The Parks in Oxford on a sunny November afternoon. Behind me was the imposing architecture of Keble College, and the Physics building, where radar was developed during the war.
The grass was still lush, and the cricket pavilion, even closed down for winter, exhibited a kind of relaxed insouciance. The trees and foliage displayed fifty shades of autumnal brown.
It was busy. There were runners on the paths, and, on neighbouring pitches, two games of lacrosse – men’s and women’s.
The men were all helmets, padding, and intense endeavour, but, in the distance, a low sun slanting its rays through the trees caught the women lacrosse players in an almost artificial light, making them seem to glide over the turf. From somewhere, came the phrase: Golden haired daughters of privilege. It’s what tends to happen when you are exposed to Oxford in the autumn sun. And lacrosse.
Back home, a picture in the Herald showed Judy Murray coaching youngsters at Drumchapel. The faces of the Glasgow youngsters were every bit as focused and determined as those on The Parks the previous day, but the facilities were different. The court was concrete, pitted with holes, and overgrown with weeds.
On a whim, I did some checking in my own city. As far as I could ascertain, our capital possesses just 51 public tennis courts, for a population of half a million. The city’s private schools between them can apparently muster 41.
This is not written as an attack on Oxford, private education, lacrosse or tennis, though all of these have come to represent, in our society, a kind of privilege, and exist in a world of limited access.
As in so many other areas of public life, sports facilities, and indeed education in general, are linked with economic status; for a significant number of children – to their advantage or to their detriment – their path through life, the width of experience to which they will have access, is determined even before they start school.
Of course, it’s not about tennis or lacrosse, or crumbling concrete or lush parkland, it’s about how highly we value our children and their futures – not to mention the nation’s potential.
We live in a country which possesses wealth to which most countries can only aspire, yet they must sometimes wonder at the way we use our resources. By some measures the UK is the fourth most unequal state in the developed world. One of the few things we do share with the poorest countries is that Save the Children works here – with some of the 1.6 million children who exist in severe poverty.
As I left the beautiful surroundings of The Parks, I felt an anger – not at the young people who were making the most of the facilities provided and the chances that had fallen to them, but at a society which seems to ignore the fact that so many children, through no fault of their own, will never have the chance to sample the best of times, the thrill of their potential.
There is enough to go round, but we seem to lack the will to manage its distribution.
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