Schools football in Scotland is in its healthiest state since the teachers' dispute of the 1980s. At a time when the Scottish Executive is concerned about obesity among children, the number playing organised football has risen to encouraging levels.
Figures released by the Scottish Schools Football Association show that entry levels to national schools competitions have risen in every age group from under-13 to under-18 in boys' events and in both the under-15 and under-18 girls' competitions.
The Coca-Cola Sevens (for boys under 14 and girls under 13 ) have almost doubled since 2001. In 2001, 236 teams entered the boys' event; the entry in 2005-06 was 459. The girls' entries improved in the same period from 136 to 261.
The figures for the other boys' national competitions in the same years are: senior, 165 to 185; under-16, 137 to 149; under-15, 148 to 173; under-14, 153 to 182; under-13, 108 to 143; and for the girls' events: senior, 41 to 63; under-15 52 to 80. Remarkably, this happened at a time when the number of schools has fallen, due to closures and amalgamations.
Numbers are so healthy that the SSFA is planning to introduce a boys'
under-13 plate competition in January to give teams knocked out in the first two rounds of the under-13 shield tournament a chance to continue playing in a national competition beyond Christmas. If it is as successful as anticipated, then it may not be long before plate competitions are introduced for every age group.
Alex McMenemy, the honorary treasurer of the SSFA, has been greatly encouraged by the figures and believes they are the reward for the governing body's philosophy of fostering the "mental, moral and physical development and improvement of pupils through the medium of association football". It has worked hard on getting the game played in the correct spirit, in the hope that it will produce well-rounded individuals as much as skilled football players.
"Teachers know that if they enter an SSFA tournament, the emphasis will be on fun, enjoyment and skill," says Mr McMenemy. "There won't be parents or coaches shouting at players from the touchline. Our referees have been told to put a stop to that. If it happens, they have the authority to halt the game and speak to anyone offending and, in extreme cases, stop a game altogether.
"In schools football, it is not about winning, it is about playing in a safe environment and making it enjoyable for the players."
The SSFA's handbook, which is sent out to affiliated schools, underlines the spirit in which school games should be played.
It has a rolling substitutes rule for P6s and P7s, so if a player is getting over-excited during a game, coaches can give the boy or girl time out and replace him or her with another player. The rule means referees should not need to be involved, as it will be up to coaches to calm down their own players.
Mr McMenemy, who is now seeing sponsors return to the schools game after a difficult few years, believes the SSFA offers a unique package for schools.
"There are a number of contributory factors that make schools competitions attractive," he says. "Schools know they will get the chance to play at Hampden Park if they reach the final of the under-18 shield and that if they reach the semi-finals or final of one of the younger age groups, it is more than likely they will get the chance to play at a senior ground.
"The Coca-Cola Sevens event for under-14 boys and under-13 girls gives participants the chance to spend the whole day at the national stadium and play on the pitch. That is a big incentive for young players and even teachers who are taking teams."
Mr McMenemy says there are plans to bridge the gap between primary and secondary schools so that players are not lost because they cannot get into an S1 team.
A secondary school may have, for example, six feeder primaries, but there is usually only one football team for players when they start in S1, he explains. "We want to keep as many as possible still playing in teams and get back to the notion of year groups having more than one team.
"The situation is now very healthy in schools," he says. "At primary level, we are playing more games than ever and at secondary level, we are getting back to the level we were at.
"Maybe 20 years ago, a big school like Holyrood Secondary in Glasgow was putting out two teams for every year from S1 to S6, whereas now maybe it is just one team per year. But we are taking steps to get back to where we were."
With the help of the Bank of Scotland and the Scottish Football Association, the SSFA has piloting its Soccer One programme in North Lanarkshire, Edinburgh and Glasgow.
"Schools in the piloted areas now have 24-week blocks of coaching with two hours a week from SFA coaches," Mr McMenemy says. "Teachers also come on board and take teams, so that at the end of the 24 weeks schools should be able to continue."
It is hoped that in future schools will have "A" and "B" teams in the secondary shield competitions.
There is another new competition this season, at under-15 level. The Be Sport PlayStation Schools Cup, for 32 invited schools, will be played on March 19 in Glasgow. Full kit will be supplied to participating teams and the winners will go forward to a UK final and then possibly a European final.
If a Scottish school could make it all the way, it would cap a landmark year for the SSFA.