When I asked boys, particularly black boys I used to teach, what they hoped to be later in life, they would invariably say "a footballer". GCSE and A-level choices were made on the understanding that one day a professional football career would somehow materialise. Such decisions were taken without any real indication of success in football: no place in a national team, or even a school team, no training, nothing. When I used to insist that they needed a plan B because football was an unlikely avenue, they would joke and respond: "Is it cos I is black, Miss?"
Boys in our inner cities who kick a ball around for a couple of hours a day to pass the time, and have an hour or two of "games" once a week in a field far away from their school, have no idea of the gruelling training that is required to become a professional footballer. Neither do they realise that there is a bunch of private schoolboys who understand this all too well.
Arsenal and England's Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain is one of those private schoolboys. At 18, this young black footballer is the perfect inspiration for thousands of our inner-city boys. But these boys won't understand how his father, Mark Chamberlain, who was himself a professional footballer, was a crucial part of his son's success. Father and son would sit and watch videos of the boy playing football, and Mark would advise Alex on how to improve. Dad would race Alex in the park, argue with the clubs on behalf of his son, and both mum and dad made the necessary sacrifices to pay the fees at St John's College, Southsea, where glorious sports fields are on site and competition isn't frowned upon.
Michael Gove, the Education Secretary, recently pointed to the success of our public schoolboys in the world of sport. It turns out they aren't just good at Latin and Greek. Half of the UK's gold medallists at the last Olympics were privately educated. As the writer and former cricketer Ed Smith has shown, while in 1987 the majority of England cricketers were state-educated, nowadays most cricketers, most rugby players, and more and more professional footballers (traditionally a working-class sport) are educated privately. Mark Chamberlain might have been a working-class boy but his son is nothing of the sort. Indeed, had Oxlade-Chamberlain had his father's childhood, he would not have had access to the resources, the rigour, and the sense of competition that only our private and the very best of state schools can provide these days.
Schools ought to equip children with the capacity to change their fate. But it has been argued that the demise of grammar schools is the reason why more and more children of bankers become bankers and why children from more humble backgrounds never manage to alter their destinies.