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Seeking secrets of success

With the Olympic Games taking place in Sydney, David Henderson asks how school sport here compares with Down Under.

The Good Lord must have cut Aussies and Kiwis a mean sporting hand, judging by their haul of trophies. Even some of the top football stars in England such as Harry Kewell at Leeds are Aussies, while Aussie cricket and rugby teams are still number one in the world.

Rather jealously, we argue, they've got the sun, conditions and facilities, but they must also be doing something else right.

Scotland has deemed that best practice is Down Under and it's going to have some. It has happily snapped up native Aussies to run key posts in the Scottish Institute of Sport and Sportscotland.

Anne Marie Harrison, head of the sport institute, was formerly chief executive of VicSport, the state sports agency in Victoria, and has been in post here for a year. In Australia, she says, they found there had been a serious decline across the board in sports participation at junior level over the last 15-20 years, which carried through to adulthood. "There was no foundation for kids but there was a recognition something had to be done about it. The figures started to be fairly damning for a country that prides itself on being healthy and sporty."

In her own state of Victoria, the government introduced a framework five years ago to restore compulsory sport and physical education to schools. Other states took different approaches.

Ms Harrison compliments Sportscotland for its work in tackling similar problems and adds: "It's critical to get the basis. If young people are not provided with the fundamental development skills early on in schools, we're starting from behind the eight ball (with a handicap)."

Twenty years ago, she adds, sport in Australia was bottom of the world order. That has been transformed, while the base of future sportsmen and women has been eroded.

Australian Dawn Penney, a Loughborough University lecturer and key adviser on PE in England, says programmes such as a new junior "health and physical education" syllabus in Queensland make a difference.

"I noted that junior sport seemed far more of a distinct and separate arena from physical education than is the case in the UK. It is probably in the development and structures for junior sport that Australia is notably 'ahead'."

Yet, she points out, provision has been on the pursuit of excellence. "It is clear that this does not match the needs and interests of many children who are seeking fun and enjoyment from 'social sport'. Australia seems no further forward than the UK in developing policies and provision that seriously address these issues," Dr Penney adds.

Talent identification programmes, common Down Under, are beginning to be trialled in Scotland, as are other programmes such as Top Play and Top Sport which aim to introduce games, sports and activities to primary schools. These are based on similar schemes in Ne Zealand.

Stewart Harris, head of youth sport at Sportscotland, and Matthew MacIver, depute registrar of the General Teaching Council for Scotland, have both been to study school sport in New Zealand but returned with different views.

Mr MacIver, a former secondary head, found some schools in similar positions to their Scottish counterparts, with extra-curricular sport fading away under curriculum pressure and teachers reluctant to become involved. But sports co-ordinators, he believes, were making a difference as part of the Sportfit programme.

At primary level, Mr MacIver found over two million children had been involved in introductory sports programmes under the banner of Kiwisport since 1980.

Following his visit, he expresses radical views: "Schools themselves are critical to the sporting future of the country, but teachers may not be. We have to address the question of teacher involvement in school sport. It is simply unrealistic to plan a sporting future based on this concept.

"We have to forget it.

"We have to use parents and the community; we have to pay and use proper coaches; we have to fund organisations to arrange fixture lists; we have to allow into our schools sports clubs who wish to develop the abilities of youngsters. We may also have to look at radical solutions."

Mr Harris disputes this view. "Fundamentally, the New Zealanders have a different culture and climate and more of an outdoor attitude.

"Fifty per cent of primary school sport is taken by parents, so that strikes me there's something different," he says.

A school sport co-ordinator, for example, in a Wellington secondary had organised 38 netball teams, all taken by parents. "School sport is still very highly valued," Mr Harris states. Yet in another boys' secondary, 70 of 80 staff coached after-school sport.

Sport in New Zealand remains traditionally Saturday-based, says Mr Harris, with a narrower range of sports and splits between the sexes in games played.

Sports co-ordinators could be parents or any outsider and were part-time, and often paid "peanuts".

Mr Harris adds: "With a teacher in charge you have a greater degree of quality assurance, taking account of the ethos of the school.

"Teachers have a holistic view of the development of the child and it's regulated. "You need strong leadership if sport is going to develop."

Good practice in New Zealand was, he believes, invariably associated with teachers' involvement.

However, it may have helped sports participation that there is no certificated physical education. It was less to do with "knowledge and understanding," Mr Harris observes.

Regional sports trusts, each with a school sport director, were one example he would emulate.

Scotland is now cherry-picking what it sees as best practice from Down Under, but the number one priority, Mr Harris believes, remains the culture of PE and sport in primaries.

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