A sporting chance can mean so much

2nd April 2004 at 01:00
Humiliation at Hampden and Murrayfield underlines the need for physical activity, says Ewan Aitken.

Scotland gubbed again! This has become an almost generic headline about all Scottish sporting achievement and not just because of recent events on the rugby and football fields. The perennial response is then wheeled out of the need for more PE in schools. The cry that we are becoming a nation of obese couch potatoes echoes in the background - all of this coupled with many column inches dedicated to making the connection between sporting failure undermining national pride, one of the indicators that we have lost our aspiration, drive and confidence as a nation.

But in among all these hand wrings, breast-beating and Presbyterian unworthiness writ large, there is a contradiction that is crucial to understanding what we mean by the effect of success and in particular the debate about what makes a successful school.

John Beattie, the former Scottish rugby international who headed the Scottish Executive's physical activity task force, argued after Scotland's failure to score a point against France at Murrayfield that to compete on the international sporting stage we need to have at least four hours of PE a week at school. He was clear that it didn't need to be all team sports or even skills based; it just needed to be quality physical activity.

For him and for many others, until we have that level of activity, not only will we never achieve sporting success as a nation, with all the sense of confidence and pride that brings, but we will continue to evolve into a sickly, unhealthy nation with little ambition or achievement.

If sport and fitness has this key role to play in success, achievement and aspiration, and I would agree with that analysis, why then do the so-called league tables of school success produced once again last month from the House of Barclay make no reference to sporting opportunity? Instead of tables collated from meaningless statistics that by no stretch of the imagination compare like with like, is there not a comparison of opportunities for physical activity in or outside the curriculum?

This could be developed into opportunities for creativity as there is hard evidence that participation in the arts has similar effects on confidence and aspiration - if you have ever taken part in a dance class or a fight scene, you will know that the arts can mean real physical activity also.

Then we would be closer to knowing the real quality of the opportunity being offered by schools. Actually, I would hesitate to go down that route because even that kind of comparison is fraught with difficulty. But the point remains. There is a huge contradiction between our collective desire to build a successful, confident nation, the role that participation in sport and the arts at school plays in our ability to meet that aspiration and the desire by some to define success in education by reducing the benchmark to the collation of unrelated samples of academic attainment.

There is some hope, however. There is a real opportunity with the reduction in class contact time at primary level and the increase in teacher numbers to create both the space and the expertise on the ground to achieve a far greater level of physical activity in schools. It will mean taking the opportunity where it would be helpful to use sporting or physical activity experts who are not teachers but who can teach those activities, but that will be a price worth paying.

This builds on the highly successful sports co-ordinator programme that has seen participation leap in many schools and clusters. In Edinburgh, we can identify around 25 different sports going on in schools, and I am sure we are not alone.

Programmes like the Sporting Chance scheme in Edinburgh involve taster sessions for new sports with proper coaches and are combined with the creation of local clubs so that when the initial programme finishes, there is a club for the keen to attend. The pathways from school to sport outside school and beyond are thus being laid down.

There is much more to be done. There are many organisational and political nettles to be grasped both at national and local level. The results will not be achieved in the short term. But ironically, from the weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth emanating from Murrayfield and Hampden we have begun to understand that what it takes to create the opportunities for young people to play their part is built on much more than badly counted scores from the exam hall.

Ewan Aitken is executive member for education on Edinburgh City Council and education spokesperson for the Convention of Scottish Local Authorities.

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