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All downhill from here

School's extra cool this winter for pupils able to take snowboarding lessons. Roddy Mackenzie hits the slopes

It is all downhill for Midlothian pupils these days but they are more than happy with it. As part of Midlothian council's sports development strategy, pupils as young as P4 are taking to the slopes at Midlothian Ski Centre on the outskirts of Edinburgh.

The council has formed a unique partnership with Snowsport Scotland to co-fund a regional development officer, Jane Rhodes, to provide skiing tuition for pupils from beginner level to more experienced skiers.

All six secondary schools in the district and 34 of the 36 primary schools are so far involved in the scheme and it will reach around 800 children in the area over the winter months. In addition to skiing, the pupils are learning the basics of snowboarding, one of the fastest-growing, "grooviest" and most popular new winter sports.

The scheme has been made possible by a partnership within the council between leisure services, contract services and education. "We're really happy with the way it's gone so far," says Ms Rhodes. "The pupils attend for a six-week block and we have around 60 pupils at the centre on a Monday and over 80 on a Wednesday.

"There are a lot of beginners but it is also a good stepping-stone to racing on snow. We have race training for kids on Wednesday evenings when we have time trials - currently we have 24 kids - and I'm hoping some of them will go on to compete in the Scottish Schools Minors Championships in future.

"We also run in-service courses for teachers on Mondays after school at 4pm from beginner level to ski leader award."

All equipment is provided at the centre and the Midlothian Schools Skiing Programme organises transport and supervision for the pupils involved, taking pressure off school time.

"Snowboarding is also proving popular with the younger children and we can provide 90-minute lessons in that," Ms Rhodes continues. "Borthwick Primary in Penicuik was the first to start that and it is quite a different sport from skiing but we are spending a lot of time on it.

"We're just looking to make snow sports as accessible as possible for youngsters and, whereas the main problem for skiing and schools in the past has been transport, we are providing that to and from the centre through this scheme."

The snow sports project is unique to Midlothian, which took control of the artificial slope at Hillend in 1996, but it is believed Snowsport Scotland wants o extend to western Scotland.

Skiing is one of four sports in which Midlothian has appointed specific development officers; football, rugby and basketball are the others.

The scheme puts stress on participation and enjoyment and providing opportunities for primary school pupils to experience different sports, so time will also be spent on volleyball, netball and bowls. Over the course of the academic year, P6 and P7 pupils in all Midlothian primary schools will receive specialist training and coaching by four development officers - Jane Rhodes in snow sports, Scott Kinross in football, Brian Renwick in rugby and Cheryl Reekie in basketball.

The different sports will be taught in three-week blocks to ensure pupils receive a firm grasp and the programme will follow them through to secondary school.

According to Robin Strang, the leisure services manager for Midlothian, the project was prompted by the fact that rugby clubs and, to some extent, basketball clubs in the area were noticing a drop-off in the number of youngsters enrolling.

The council's regular health and fitness checks also concluded that children were not attaining as high a degree of fitness level as they were previously, and the scheme is intended to ensure pupils are more active. The strategy is to get youngsters involved at an early age and encourage them to have a positive attitude to sport which will endure over a lifetime. Mr Strang stresses that, should the scheme prove successful (and the early indications are encouraging), then the council will look at extending it to other sports and possibly bring on four new sports.

While the emphasis is not on seeking out the elite performers, Mr Strang agrees that it would be a bonus if any talented individuals were unearthed through the programme, who would not otherwise have had the chance to shine.

Through links with local clubs in the different sports, any promising youngster will get the chance to fulfil their potential.

Councillor Adam Montgomery, convener of leisure services for the council, says: "By taking part in this programme, children in Midlothian will receive top quality coaching from four specialist sports development officers and I think they can't fail to be enthused by their expertise and passion for their individual sports.

"They will also come away with a strong foundation in a number of different sports activities, as well as a sense of direction and support as the programme extends over the next three years."

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