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State squeeze for Glasgow athletics

It would never have happened in the heyday of the Glasgow schools track and field championships. But this year, there was the announcement: "Would the Glasgow High School boy playing with the rugby ball please put it away?" This preliminary meeting of the championships in May encapsulated for me the extent to which the fee-paying schools have taken over this and other events in the city's schools athletics calendar.

Until the early eighties, state schools could reasonably anticipate some success whether measured in pupils producing a personal best performance, reaching a final or getting a first, second or third place and thereby points for their school in the overall team championships.

There are now fewer state schools, most have smaller rolls and there has been a significant drop-off in extracurricular involvement. This year, although there was a slight increase in the number of state schools taking part, 12 did not enter at all. In addition, the rolls of fee-paying schools have increased and all schools are permitted up to two pupils in two events each. The independent schools this year increased their domination, especially in the boys' individual events and the relays.

This is not in the interests of pupils in the country's largest education authority or of athletics development in the west of Scotland. There must be a pool of talent in the large number of schools which do not enter pupils.

The table below gives the figures for 1995, before local government reorganisation, and for this year. Generally speaking, the only pupils with any chance of success are trained club athletes like the boy from my own school who by winning two events placed the school midway in the league table with six points.

Other possible reasons for fee-paying dominance include the fact that their pupils are on average bigger, stronger and healthier and have an advantage in an activity where natural athleticism is rewarded rather than acquired skills or techniques; the greater competitive ethos in the fee-paying schools; teachers being rewarded in terms of time (and money?) for taking extracurricular clubs; greater parental interest; and direct access to their own primary departments where the competitive culture is first introduced.

In the cross-country championships, the message to state schools is unfortunately clear. If you bother to turn up, don't even think of your school getting a place in the older age-groups, and if you want to do well in the younger category, put your pupils into an athletics club. Between 1995 and 1997, of the 36 team medals won for places in the over-15s, 32 went to fee-paying schools. In the under-15s, the score was 21 out of 36.

Among state school teachers, some feel there is an unacceptable imbalance, if not an injustice. Others do not like what is happening but feel little can be done.

One solution would be to have a "closed" meeting for local authority schools, held during the school day with a much simplified organisation, plus an "open" championships for all schools but with a minimum entry standard.

The proposed appointment of a sports co-ordinator to every secondary school in Scotland, an initiative recently announced by the Scottish Office, might also help.

In the eighties, impoverishment of opportunity in Glasgow secondaries was exacerbated by the assisted placed scheme and by parents' placing requests. Falling rolls put pressure on subject choice and increased curricular pressures on teachers understandably meant less involvement in activities outwith the school day.

Participation in and enjoyment of athletics, coupled to spotting and nurturing potential, are obviously not the highest priority for any school. But directors of education, advisers and teachers owe it to pupils to see sport promoted in an equitable, non-discriminatory way, and that is just not happening.

John Cairney recently retired as a physical education teacher in a Glasgow secondary.

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