Inspire a generation

Are Scotland’s schools ready to make the most of this summer’s sporting legacy?

by Sep 24, 2012 No Comments

Just in time for those who were wondering whether the overused ‘Olympic legacy’ was an abstract concept, news has arrived that London 2012 and US Open sporting hero, Andy Murray, is lobbying hard for the establishment of a Scottish national tennis academy. If reports are to be believed, a site has been chosen, funds identified, and a final decision could come within months. If Murray’s dream comes true, it will certainly be good news for budding Scottish professional tennis stars; it raises the question, however, of what the sporting legacy of this past summer will be for the rest of the country, whether elite-athlete-in-waiting or keen amateur? And how will schools, with their crucial role in inspiring the next generation, fit into those plans?

At the core of sport in schools is the Scottish Government’s commitment to providing two hours of physical education per week for every primary school pupil, and two periods at S1 to S4, by 2014. Operating alongside that is the Active Schools Network, a programme administered by sportscotland in partnership with local authorities and others. The networks sees Active Schools Coordinators working within primary and secondary schools to create opportunities for young people to be active, exercise and take part in sport; this often involves building links with community sports clubs and other relevant organisations outside the school itself.

Some schools are also involved in another sportscotland-administered programme – the creation of Community Sports Hubs. The hubs bring together sports clubs and other community stakeholders to administer existing sporting facilities in a more effective and cooperative way – sometimes with an injection of investment to improve facilities. One hundred and forty-one are already planned, with a commitment to have one in every local authority area by the end of this year.

Despite all this, however, doubts remain about the strength of the link between schools and community sport.

Speaking at this year’s Festival of Politics at the Scottish Parliament, Olympic athletics silver medalist, Liz McColgan, raised doubts about the standard of the sporting facilities that youngsters inspired by the Olympics have at their disposal. “I still coach kids who are paying £3 to get into a track that has very bad lighting.

I can’t see them in the winter time. There’s only one toilet. There’s no drinks available. We are probably going to let down a lot of kids who are so enthused from the success that we had. Kids nowadays have got a great access to television. I didn’t have that in my day. They see it and they want it. I feel the Government, the associations have let us down because we are not prepared to deal with all these kids that want to be the next Chris Hoy or Kat Grainger.” Others have joined McColgan, questioning the contribution that Scotland’s schools make to the overall health of sport in the country. In a written submission to an inquiry being held by the Health and Sport Committee at the Scottish Parliament, the Scottish Rugby Union (SRU) highlighted what it said were significant failings in the way sport is handled in schools.

Sports provision is “fragile”, and dependent on PE staff whose contracts are often too short, making it “difficult to sustain and impossible to increase participation in many schools.” Some PE teachers were “lacking either the physical competence to teach sports, or lacking the skills, experience or qualifications to confidently teach technical elements of sports.” While praising the essential contribution of volunteers, the SRU said that provision in some schools was entirely dependent on them, with no paid staff at all. Many PE lessons were undermined by “too many opt-outs” and “too much inactive time”. There was a lack of commitment from some senior staff, with inadequate resources made available to fund travel costs, equipment, and other facilities. The overall result was a national student body “possessing very poor levels of physical fitness, physical competence [and] generic sporting experience as a result of inadequate PE provision.” Following that evidence up with oral testimony, the SRU’s director of rugby operations, Colin Thomson, claimed there is an “unhealthy distinction between physical education, physical activity and sport [which] has marginalised sport… there must be an integrated approach to PE, physical activity and sport, and there must be local co-ordination and local decision making that is right for the level,” he told MSPs. His views are echoed by Dr Joe Bradley, professor of sports studies at Stirling University, who believes that PE lessons are not acting as the vehicle for participation in sport that they should be.

“For many youngsters, PE is something that has to be done and endured at school, and it’s not a good experience for many reasons – some of which have nothing to do with school and more to do with wider cultural issues,” Bradley says. “Crucially, it might be the case that the divide-participation idea also applies for many PE teachers: in this sense if teachers, schools and senior management do not make the connections between PE and sport in the community, that is a major problem for those who advocate sport for life.” He raises the same points as in the SRU’s submission – a lack of investment in time and finance, and poor career prospects for staff involved in school sport. A failure to teach “the whole person in a vocational sense” may also be to blame.

One solution suggested during the Health and Sport Committee’s inquiry was to push for the creation of more community sports hubs within schools. Giving evidence on 4 September, sportscotland chief executive, Stewart Harris, highlighted the example of the Tryst hub in Larbert, which has brought together the local secondary school with a golf club, football club and cricket club. Elsewhere, such as at Inch Park community sports hub in Edinburgh, schools have brought PE classes to use new facilities created in previously rundown council-owned land. “If I were greedy, I would say that we should consider making every secondary school in Scotland a sport hub. If what has happened at Larbert High School, Stenhousemuir Football Club and the other sports clubs around the school were replicated, the difference in the situation in Scotland would be fantastic, but it will take commitment nationally and locally for that to happen,” Harris said. However, he added that where sporting facilities are on school grounds, access in the evenings and on weekends can be a challenge. Community clubs that use school facilities also have difficulty confirming access for more than one school term at a time.

Harris told MSPs that in some cases, this was due to the terms of public-private partnership contracts under which schools are run.

sportscotland is currently conducting a study of access hours across all 32 local authorities, and will publish its findings later this year.

The experience of one community sports club demonstrates Thomson’s point about their essential role in developing both participatory and elite sport, and illustrates some of the challenges they face. Warrender Baths Club is named as one of Edinburgh’s oldest swimming pools in the south of the city. Welcoming youngsters from across the city, it has 300 swimmers across 12 squads, divided by age and ability. Despite the wide range of swimmers it accommodates, the club has an established and reliable pedigree, producing several Olympians and Commonwealth Games competitors.

Craig Benson is the most recent to join that list. Last month at London 2012, the Livingston-born 18 year old announced his arrival at the highest level of his sport by getting through his heat in the 100m breaststroke in his first Olympics, making it as far as the semi-finals. A fellow Scot, Michael Jamieson, went on to take the silver medal in the 200m breaststroke; Benson is now focusing on taking the next step onto the podium in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. A key figure in his achievement to date, and helping him reach his next goal, is his coach at Warrender Baths Club, Laurel Bailey.

“Craig didn’t really do any swimming at school; everything he’s done has been through Warrender in Edinburgh,” says Bailey. Benson attended the comprehensive James Young High School in Livingston, and swam at a local amateur club until a lack of genuine competition at his age level drove him to look for another programme further from home. Bailey’s experience supports Thomson and Bradley’s comments that schools aren’t taking a significant role in developing sporting talent and ability.

“Obviously most of the swimmers we coach at Warrender go to local schools within Edinburgh, and what kind of sports programme they have depends on what school they go to. They may have a PE programme or a weekly games session… none of them are very sport orientated.” Most of the children that join Warrender Baths Club do so through learn-to-swim programmes, which often operate out-ofschool swimming pools but are independent organisations. Bailey praises one that is particularly active in Edinburgh, called Swim Easy, for going beyond the basic programme that most providers stick to. “The beauty of [Swim Easy] is that it is specifically teaching kids skills that they need to be competitive swimmers. Some learn to swim programmes are just about safety and making kids safe in water, which is important, but we’re obviously trying to bring in kids that are good swimmers.

So they do that in learn to swim programmes, and then come into the club when they’re ready.” Bailey says that some schools are very supportive of their young athletes, for instance, letting students skip registration after morning training and go straight to their first class of the day, or stretch Higher exams over two years.

“Some schools are not very accommodating, and are quite restrictive,” she adds, echoing comments from Thomson at the Health and Sport Committee that schools too often fail to recognise as positive the time commitment made by students and staff involved in sport.

However, contrary to much media and political commentary that suggested only the privateeducation sector ‘understood’ competition and sport, Bailey doesn’t detect a clear state-private divide in how accommodating schools are – it depends on the school and the staff there. Some state schools finish early on Fridays to allow time for participation in sport, whereas private schools do not.

Indeed, rather than local schools feeding the community club system, it is Warrender Baths Club that is helping to enrich their sporting programmes. The club’s 12 coaches are working with a number of state and private schools across the capital, spending a day a week training students from the likes of Stewart’s Melville College, Merchiston Castle School, and Craigroyston Community High School.

“Craigroyston is a really good example; they didn’t have any kind of existing swimming programme, and one of our coaches now goes in every Thursday and coaches anyone that wants to come along to after-school swimming,” Bailey says. “He’ll enter them into Edinburgh schools swimming championships, but it’s not set up for swimmers to get to an elite level – they have to join a club to do that.” Relying too much on community clubs to provide the institutional infrastructure for sport, however, is dangerous, according to Thomson.

“The most important thing beyond the club is the school,” Thomson told MSPs. “We have a strong club culture across Scotland in which great work is done by people whose children have long gone from the club and by former players who want to give something back. That attitude has been bred by a giving-back culture, which starts in the school. We have had success in increasing the amount of school rugby, but I am concerned about the culture not starting in schools but being isolated in clubs, which limits the people who are involved in the sport to children whose parents take them along.

“If we are sincere about creating a sporting culture, we must be open to all. We must therefore be in schools and school sport must play a greater role, because we can recruit children in school and when they are in the senior school we can train them to deliver to the primary-school sector and the first year of secondary school. We can create a giving-back culture that sustains volunteering beyond just parents.” Elite athletes often carry stories of personal and family sacrifice beyond just their physical exertions; Benson faces a daily round trip of an hour and half to train, while Jamieson’s family went through financial hardship to send him to train in France. If you live outside the central belt, the lack of physical and institutional infrastructure can force difficult decisions on families. “We have a boy in the programme who has actually moved to Edinburgh from Oban. He’s a really good swimmer, he wanted to take his swimming further, and he wasn’t going to be able to do that there, so he actually moved through here to a boarding school so he could continue swimming. In some cases it comes down to a pretty serious decision from the family,” says Bailey. Only when athletes reach the pinnacle of their sport do their financial and personal circumstances get easier – all sportscotland and UK Sport funding is targeted at elite individuals, who are encouraged to base themselves at Intensive Training Centres located at Stirling, Loughborough and Bath, where Jamieson now trains.

Those sacrifices are expected at elite level, and help to make elite sport so competitive; in community sport, however, the funding landscape can be just as challenging. Clubs like Warrender Baths have to raise huge amounts to support their activities. While most swimming clubs use volunteer coaches, Warrender’s coaching staff are all qualified professionals, and are paid a salary. In addition, pool rental alone costs the club £250,000 a year. Similar clubs outside the capital have rental costs waived by their local council, but Warrender does not, although it does benefit from a small subsidy when using the Olympic-sized Commonwealth Pool, which costs £13 per lane, per hour. The club also rents school pools, such as the one at Leith Academy, and facilities operated by Edinburgh Leisure, the council’s arm’s-length leisure trust. However, cheaper facilities have become more difficult to get hold of, with council funding cuts reducing the number of hours that pools like the club’s home venue, Warrender Baths, are open.

Those costs mean that not everyone can take part. Bailey coaches the elite squad; her swimmers pay £100 a month. Some fundraising money is directed toward paying for additional equipment and travel costs, but training isn’t subsidised. “Automatically, that makes it a middle-class sport,” Bailey concedes.

Ultimately, those sorts of financial barriers mean that while the schools themselves might not be the discriminating factor, competitive sport nonetheless remains difficult to access for those who can’t afford private education.

“The British Olympic winners showed just how much the divide between state and private schools counts – and that is just in sport, never mind all other life chances. Ethnic minorities and the social, cultural and economic underclasses remain marginalised because that is the way power is organised,” says Bradley.

“There are few people prepared to challenge this and not many able to. It’s great that private schools have the opportunities to achieve – it’s just that these same opportunities should apply regardless of creed, ethnicity or social class.” There is no point fighting for equality of access, however, if the main access point – schools – aren’t able to fulfil their role. As the SRU’s Thomson told decision-makers this month: “We have heard that a generation was inspired throughout the summer, but if those people have no opportunity to participate in what they have been watching, what is the point in inspiring them?”

Paris Gourtsoyannis Paris Gourtsoyannis

Paris joined Holyrood in September 2011, and became education correspondent in May 2012. Born in Canada into a Greek family, and raised in Belgium, he came to Scotland in 2005 to study at the University of Edinburgh, where he was involved with award-winning student publication The Journal. Before working at Holyrood, Paris contributed to the Edinburgh Evening News, the Guardian and Guardian Local, and interned at think-tank Demos. His beat takes in all areas of Scotland's education and skills sector, including early years, adult learning, and employability...

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