City of Edinburgh Council hopes to establish a sports academy as early as next August in a bid to address the skills shortage in school sports. It aims initially to recruit 30 to 50 talented pupils across the city.
The academy will be multi-locational, using the facilities at a number of schools and sports venues and not centred at one particular school.
The council's move follows the findings of the Stirling-based Scottish Institute of Sport, which was set up four years ago and is credited with playing a big part in Scotland's success at the last Commonwealth Games, held in Melbourne, Australia, in March.
Over the past four years, the institute has realised that many of the school-aged athletes put forward for selection have fallen short in four key areas: skill, technique, fitness and attitude. Figures suggest that, with the exception of a handful of outstanding individuals, prospective candidates came up a third short of expectation level, compared with similar young athletes throughout Europe.
That has prompted Edinburgh to look seriously at ways to bring athletes up to scratch after considering similar projects in Glasgow and North Lanarkshire. It does not want the capital's pupils to lag behind, so intends to create an academy structure that will work closely with the East of Scotland Institute of Sport and, in turn, the national institute.
Although pupils selected for the initial programme will be expected to take part in the academy activities after school hours, there is no doubt, as a long-term project, ways will be considered to accommodate talented athletes during the school day and offer a flexible curriculum and individual learning programmes, as many other European countries currently do.
The working group that was set up to study the feasibility of the academy emphasised that the long-term success would be determined by its being able to set up personalised learning packages for the athletes.
The council is currently considering five sports - girls' football, rugby, cricket, tennis and golf - but that is not to say those will all be represented when the academy opens its doors next year. Other sports also have a chance to stake their claim and, in future years, the number of sports in the academy will increase, if everything goes to plan.
The council is looking at what contribution, if any, sports' governing bodies can make to the academy in terms of finance or other in-kind support. That level of support is likely to be a key issue in terms of which sports are eventually offered places, but the council envisages a "modest start" in 2007, with a phased programme over the following five years to bring more sports on board.
"We're looking at five sports but, initially, it could be anything from three, four or five as we get the academy up and running," explains Robin Yellowlees, the council's principal officer for sports and outdoor education.
"It's still pretty fluid and will depend on which sports are involved, but we hope to select the sports this side of Christmas. In future years, we'd be hoping to bring more sports on board and the academy will grow."
Where the academy is based is still open for discussion and much will depend on which sports are selected and what facilities are needed, but a pilot project will run in an area of the city within the next few months.
Not only will the academy provide fitness and coaching advice, it will also look at diet and nutrition and even sports psychology. Given that the children selected will mostly be in the S1-S3 range, however, that will not be a strong area of emphasis.
"We'll be concentrating on S1-S3 children although obviously, for talent identification purposes, we'll be looking down towards P6 and P7 pupils,"
says Mr Yellowlees.
"We already have sports development officers in place in the city to help with that process and we have physical education staff and Active Schools co-ordinators, so we will have input from all areas.
"Some sports, like rugby, already have a system in place and it's not going to be a case of tampering with existing models which are working pretty well.
"We will be focusing on individual athletes rather than teams. There will be times when the academy pupils get together as a group, for things like strength and conditioning and fitness programmes, but specific sports-related skills would be worked on separately by the different sports."
A bursary scheme may be introduced to help children from low-income families with transport and any competition costs.
Mr Yellowlees believes that something had to be done sooner rather than later to ensure that Edinburgh continues to be represented in national squads at youth level, to enable children in the city to have the same opportunities as elsewhere in the country.
"I think the Scottish Institute of Sport was initially hoping to get virtually the finished product when they opened but they have found they had to recruit from further down the chain because the levels were not what they expected," he says. "In many cases they have had to do almost remedial work to get them up to the standards of other European countries.
"This is our attempt to bridge that gap. What we want to offer is a stepping-stone towards the institute, nothing more. We're not looking to produce the finished article, but to give schoolchildren a help up to achieve their goal."