Bring on the future of sport

The McCrone inquiry will initiate changes in the teaching profession, but what will it mean for physical education? Sports minister Rhona Brankin offers her views to David Henderson

The ball is very much in Professor Gavin McCrone's court. Next week, he is scheduled to unveil his restructuring plans for the teaching profession and extra-curricular activities will receive their usual place - back courts rather than centre.

The plans are certain to affect teachers in terms of pay, conditions and structures. But what will they mean for school sport?

Ministers would like to think we are on the brink of a new era of commitment and motivation. But equally, next session we could be back 15 years to the industrial action of the mid-80s which effectively ditched what was seen as a great tradition of school sport - even if it never encompassed the wider view of activity for all that many now advocate.

The recovery has been slow and patchy and life has moved on for pupils and teachers. Habits change, politics change, sport develops.

Comparable participation rates are difficult to assess since the school population has dropped by a third since the seeming golden era. There are more sporting opportunities outside school, but there are different pressures. Teachers and pupils are both on the exam treadmill.

Professor McCrone is certain to recommend contracts that reward teachers' efforts, but will it be enough to settle the argument about payment for after-school activities?

Sports minister Rhona Brankin acknowledges the importance of the McCrone inquiry but declines to speculate on the outcome. She prefers to offer hope of a better sporting future in which schools are committed to promoting healthy, active lifestyles. Sport will have its place in whole-school developments, while teachers will continue to be at the heart of delivering it, she believes. "Sport has to be an integral, important part of a holistic experience," she says.

Other countries have largely taken sport out of school, but the junior minister favours a mix of in and out of school sports. "We need to do both, but we need qualified teachers with the skills to develop the confidence of young people, who understand how children learn, who have the knowledge and understanding about individual children's needs and who can plan proper programmes," she says.

"We also need the links into clubs because we know many youngsters do not carry on after school. I was one of those," she says.

She knows better than many the value of lifestyle approaches - she has recently had serious breast cancer surgery. One of her priorities is to ensure that young children pursue activity as part of their daily routine. She believes this job will be partly down to the physical activities task force trailed in the health White Paper and Sport 21, Sportscotland's national strategy.

"We've got to get more kids active," the minister emphasises, adding that participation and access to sport depends on encouraging them when they are young. She is watching closely the Active Primary Schools' pilot in West Lothian and Sportscotland's Top PlayTop Sport initiative to puttraining and equipment into primary schools. She believes that primary teachers are still insecure about teaching physical activity.

"The headteacher has got to be signed up for the importance of physical activity and sport - and that it's important for the wider curriculum. That may include what kids eat at their school dinners," she says.

The new task force - a joint scheme of health and sports agencies - will draw on research to implement best strategies and may set targets for physical activity.

The minister and her advisers emphasise that there are no quick fixes in promoting understanding of what regular activity means to healthy lifestyles. Projects on the go in primary and secondary schools need to be monitored and evaluated.

Ms Brankin is keen to gain an accurate picture of sport in primary and secondary before committing herself to further initiatives. She acknowledges there are wide discrepancies between schools but says: "There are a lot of good things going on; there's a lot of sport in schools, and in many cases more than in recent years. I'm very upbeat about it, but there's a way to go."

The minister defends Labour's record over the past three years in government - and one year in the Scottish Parliament - and points to the changes in National Lottery funding as a key development. "There's been a move away from capital to revenue and that has allowed programmes to move forward," she says.

Lottery distributors have also been told to broaden their base to include schools.

Although much of Sportscotland's lottery budget - pound;20 million over four years - is allocated to fund the Scottish Institute of Sport, she denies that the elite end of sport has benefited more than schools and youth clubs. Local authorities contribute vastly to school sport quite separately, Ms Brankin points out.

The school sport co-ordinator scheme remains the linchpin of developments in secondary schools and she is satisfied with progress in its first full year. "It's a hearts and minds issue," she says.

Co-ordinators may only be employed for one day a week, but the scheme was devised to allow school staff to front developments and avoid a sports development model, the minister points out.

"We need to have hard evidence whether or not it is effective in getting kids active, broadening the range of sports and making links with clubs. We are monitoring it," she says.

While England will have around 110 specialist sport schools within two years - funded by the Youth Sport Trust - Scotland has only the more limited model at Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow. But Ms Brankin suggests that there is room for expansion, even if the Scottish experience with specialist schools is more limited.

"I am interested. I am aware of what's going on and I am looking at this area and hoping to go down to England to look at some of the practice there. In the last analysis, what is going to work?

"Ifeel strongly that we have to have a whole-school approach, where all children can benefit from an emphasis on sport or the arts or whatever," she explains.

Professor McCrone's committee may settle that, too.

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