It wasn't hard to find criticism of the United Kingdom's performance at this year's World Athletics Championships in Athens. With just five silvers and a bronze to show for the team's efforts, the tabloid headline "Second best" summed it up perfectly. Some comfort lies in the Government's new proposals for a British Academy of Sport, but if the root causes of failure are to be tackled early, then the recent history of schools is worth examining.
On the surface, this year's English Schools Athletics Association Championships, held at the Don Valley Stadium in Sheffield at the beginning of the summer, were as big a success as ever. This two-day feast of track and field, featuring almost 1,650 of the nation's best young athletes aged 11 to 19, has long been regarded as offering a taste of things to come in what is arguably Britain's best sport. Internationally, athletics brings us more success than football, rugby, hockey or any of the team sports that John Major was so keen for our schools to promote.
But if you listen to some of the most impressive senior winners at Sheffield, you get plenty of hints that all is not right in the world of school athletics - which will have knock-on effects on the national scene early next century.
Take 17-year-old David Parker, whose 70-metre-plus javelin throws put him at number eight in the current British rankings, including senior men. Many see the Scarborough Sixth Form College student as a possible successor to Steve Backely for the 2004 Olympics.
"Fortunately for me, my Dad's a PE teacher and has coached me for the javelin, " he says, but "right from being spotted as a good thrower of a cricket ball when I was 11, I've had no coaching from school. The teachers were great at encouraging me and my schoolmates even sponsored me for kit, but the focus was on team sports rather than giving technical help with athletics events. "
John Thie, the 1500 metres champion at Sheffield, comes from Filton College in Avon and, although offered a university place last year, did an extra year at school specially for a bid at the 1500 metres title.
"I went to Clevedon School which has an established sporting reputation so we are looked after in track and field, but generally speaking at these championships it does seem that standards are falling. Although my PE teacher at Clevedon got me started, it's my club coach, Tom Watson, who got me to that level."
Sarah Wilhelmy, under the guidance of Bruce Longden, Sally Gunnell's coach, took the 200 metre title at Sheffield and is seen as one of tomorrow's stars. She feels herself fortunate to be at an Essex grammer school that focuses on athletics in the summer.
"But there are plenty of people who go down to my track and the only chance they get to do athletics is at the club. There's very little taught in some schools".
Mike McNeill is a leading light in schools athletics coaching in the Peterbrough and Cambridgeshire areas. During 18 years as a PE teacher, he has witnessed what he see as a serious deterioration in track and field's status in schools.
"In the 1980s the PE adviser would circulate all PE departments about the county sports and everyone had to give a serious commitment. This year we circulated 150 PE teachers in Cambridgeshire and the meeting was attended by only nine.
"The industrial action in 1987 and the advent of directed time was the watershed. From then on you got a new breed of PE teacher. Before then PE teachers would spot talent in lessons and then give individual coaching after school. Nowadays there are meetings to attend and paperwork to complete. Any school-age athlete who is outside the club system simply cannnot hope to compete."
He says that some selective schools and the independent sector are still managing to coach individual athletes, "but they don't have the same concerns over OFSTED. One PE teacher I know established a brilliant ethos among his pupils. The school's athletics profile was second to none and even though there were only 600 pupils, he regularly turned out teams of 80 at inter-school events. Along came OFSTED and he was taken to task for incomplete paperwork and gaps in the PE curriculum. What message is he to get from that?
"All PE staff can do now is teach concepts in a six- or eight-week cycle during the summer term. That's the right way to do things, but there's no time to follow up and develop talent too. You can only say that standards at district trials have fallen to a dismal level over the past 10 years."
Former PE teacher Tom Watson is a leading coach in Avon and reflects ironically that he can give a bigger commmitment to athletes coaching since moving out of PE into a senior management job at his school.
"There aren't too many sporting areas where Britain is littered with world-class talent but athletics is one. This sport is also good in that it involves both sexes and they can support each other. But it's down to the clubs these days. Because of all the demands of the national curriculum, schools simply don't have the time to develop the individual talent. Team sports are a more efficient use of time."
Another development that worries him is the lack of young teachers being recruited into PE - "whereas 15 years ago there was a constant input of new faces."
This year was the 67th ESAA Championships and its smooth organisation by scores of volunteers was as much in evidence as ever. Its chairwoman was Yvonne Aspinall, a PE teacher who took early retirement two years ago in order to devote more time to athletics. She admits that staging the event is getting tougher every year.
"Teachers simply don't have the time nowadays that they used to have. Local education authorities put in bids two years in advance to stage the championships, but they are dependent upon teachers giving up the time to plan and run things and there is not the same degree of willingness these days.
"For athletics to be a success in our schools, the right ethos must be there in the management of schools and LEAs. Personally, I think athletics is important enough to be given such a priority. Every child at school can find an event to apply themselves to individually and work at improving."
But specific factors have worked against this happening. "Until 10 years ago a school could recruit a PE teacher who was a specialist in athletics or tennis or cricket and look to do well in that sport. Now because of the national curriculum, there isn't the leeway for a school to specialise in a particular sport so athletics has to be fitted in somehow and, as it's more an individual than a team sport, it probably suffers".
Perhaps it's no surprise to find that working teachers are no longer the backbone of this enterprise. In Sheffield many of the officals and recorders of events were club officals, people outside the school system and many of them retired from working life. As one sad teacher-coach told me, "There are many teachers who should have coached and organised in their own time all summmer, but cannot be spared for just one day off school."
To make matters worse, the ESAA has still not found a sponsor to replace TSB, which is pulling out this year after six years of sponsorship. The association needs Pounds 300,000 a year to run the championships and maintain its full range of services and scholarships.
The upshot is that there are now serious fears for the future of the system that has delivered many fine athletes over the years. The link between school and club is the bedrock of British track and field success, but it is now seriously undermined. Indeed, to call these the "English Schools'" Championships is almost a misnomer.