Drivers of sport pick up the pace

The Young Ambassadors programme has reached 9 in 10 secondaries and just keeps growing stronger, writes Henry Hepburn

A growing army of teenagers around Scotland is working tirelessly to turn peers on to sport and raise young people's ambitions, as part of a scheme that has grown to cover nine in 10 secondary schools.

The Young Ambassadors programme, which asks students aged 14-17 to drive interest in sport at their schools and beyond, began in 2009 but remained modest in scale until last year.

Where previously two ambassadors represented each of Scotland's 32 local authorities, the scheme - run by sportscotland and the Youth Sport Trust - is now available to all secondaries.

Ambassadors typically spend between three and five hours a week on their role. Duties include setting up sports events, organising teams of younger volunteers and speaking at assemblies.

Some 89 per cent of Scotland's secondaries are involved, providing around 600 young ambassadors. Organisers are confident that with the excitement around last year's Olympics and the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, interest will continue to grow.

"I don't think there's ever been a better time to get young people at the heart of things," says Jacqueline Lynn, sportscotland head of schools and community. She has monitored the programme's impact across Scotland and recalls one 16-year-old boy, a carer for his mother, who thrived on the responsibility.

"Sport gave him an outlet, a chance to tell his story and to see that there's lots more you can do in your life than putting your head down and worrying about your own situation," she says.

Mrs Lynn was impressed by the regular "Breakfast Boogies" at Hilton Primary in Inverness, where P6-7 children, after training by ambassadors, had the confidence to lead morning dance sessions for the whole school.

A particularly impressive tale emerges from Drumchapel in Glasgow, a community long blighted by poverty. For Drumchapel High headteacher Robert Williamson, Young Ambassadors - introduced at the school last August - is about much more than getting more people to play sport.

"One of our issues is a lack of aspiration and self-esteem," he says. "The kind of confidence that these programmes build in young people, the kind of ownership it allows them to take on, is very, very important."

Drumchapel is a place where achievements can be obscured by stereotypes of social dysfunction. Ambassador Rebecca Taylor, 17, says: "The school's quite talented, but nobody sees that because it's Drumchapel."

She likens young ambassadors to a pupil council that just happens to focus on sport. Jim Smart, the PE teacher who mentors the ambassadors, says giving students a voice is crucial to "make them feel valued".

Another of the school's ambassadors, Angela Murray, 17, did not even like sport much previously, but has revelled in her new responsibilities.

"I was quite insecure at PE - I didn't think I was good," she says. "It's weird - now I'm going to study sport and development at City of Glasgow College after leaving school. The most important thing I've learned is to take every opportunity you're given."

The programme came at a good time for the school, which had been criticised by inspectors in January last year for not giving students enough chances to show leadership.

So Rebecca, Angela and a third ambassador, Victoria McKay, have been busy - starting with a students v teachers volleyball match to highlight their work. Then they went round the 600-student school to promote its 18 sports clubs, some of which were low in numbers. They found out about sporting talent that had been entirely unnoticed - the school even had a British champion boxer, who staff had been unaware of. Now, such achievements are celebrated on a school "wall of fame".

Next, they started a leadership programme, delegating tasks to 16 "sports captains", spread across every year group.

"We wanted leadership in every area of the school," Mr Smart says. "We don't want them to wait until fifth or sixth year, then be asked to speak at assemblies. We want the kids to have that responsibility in first year, and follow it all the way through."

PE participation rates have shot up to 95-97 per cent. And the Young Ambassadors scheme is an important part of that success. Mr Smart singles out Katy Anderson, the school's dynamic health and well-being faculty head, who started in 2011, for particular praise.

She has sought to distance PE from the old stereotype of belligerent men in tracksuits with contempt for children not gifted at sport.

The school's ambassadors and PE teachers constantly refer to the school's recently established values: respect, responsibility, ambition, honesty and - crucially - caring.

Mr Smart adds: "One girl was out of control in the first and second year, a PE refuser - but she's a completely different person now. She respects the department and she's a top-class gymnast and dancer, now that the school's whole ethos has changed.

"She was told that she was talented, that we liked her, that we were not going to give up on her; all these messages are so valuable to kids. The relationships with kids are fantastic. It's like a revolution, almost: the whole school is becoming much happier, friendlier and pupil-centred."

The ambassadors have reached out beyond the school, organising the "Drumwealth Games", a one-day multi-sport event held in various locations for primary children and younger secondary students last month.

"We're very keen on promoting the community and trying to give it a sense of importance and belonging," Mr Smart says. "Drumchapel has had a lot of bad press as a community long blighted by poverty, but it's really on the way up - and part of it is to do with the Young Ambassadors programme we're running."



Young Ambassadors conferences will be held around Scotland in September:

- 4 September, Perth - for Tayside, Fife and Central;

- 10 September, Edinburgh - for eastern Scotland;

- 13 September, Aberdeen - for northeast Scotland and Shetland;

- 17 September, Glasgow - for the Ayrshires, Dumfries and Galloway and the Dunbartonshires;

- 18 September, Glasgow - for Glasgow, the Renfrewshires and North Lanarkshire;

- 24 September, Inverness - for Highlands and Islands.

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