Scottish Athletics is trying to get back in the running and win a place for track and field sports in the national curriculum, writes Roddy Mackenzie
When almost 800 athletes toe the start-line for the Scottish Primary Schools Road Relay Championships at Grangemouth, it is clear that athletics is not going out of fashion.
True, there was no Scottish athlete within touching distance of an Olympic medal in Athens this summer but youngsters still have an appetite for going the distance.
Scottish Athletics, the sport's governing body, is working closely with its UK counterpart to get athletics back on the school curriculum. There are concerns that the sport has lost out to football and rugby. In the past, ball skills could be enough to get you on the team but now these sports, and others, are competing for the athletically gifted child too.
Ewen Cameron, the youth development manager for Scottish Athletics, believes the Norwich Union-sponsored Shine Awards athletics proficiency scheme, which replaces the Thistle Awards, is the ideal platform for teachers to get pupils of all ages back on track. It uses computer software to reward them for athletic performance, offer virtual coaching to higher levels of achievement and support teachers. Certificates and medals are also awarded for achievement in a variety of events.
The scheme was launched four years ago but had technological teething problems and so was relaunched last year. It is aimed at 3- to 18-year-olds, with the emphasis on fun physical challenges to hook them on track and field events and provide a pathway to performance.
The programme is split into four levels: play and learn for 3- to 8-year-olds, participation for 7s to 12s, getting better for 11s to 15s and performance for 14-year-olds and older pupils. It also caters for children with disabilities.
It scores for how far a pupil can run in five seconds through to times for a 100m sprint, and commonly neglected areas such as race walking. There is also the opportunity for schools to test themselves against others in the UK by comparing times and distances at the same levels. The top 25 schools in different events are listed on the programme's website and Scottish schools are prominent in the current rankings.
"The Shine Awards programme is a fantastic tool for teachers to introduce athletics to children; easy to follow and flexible," says Mr Cameron.
"Pupils can see themselves progress and it can be used for beginners right through to performance athletes.
"Athletics has dropped off the curriculum in schools and there are a few reasons for that.
"It is all too easy to blame the teachers' dispute of the 1980s, although it undoubtedly had an effect, but there was also no decent teaching resource to follow.
"There is the preconceived notion that you have to have a big playing field or a 300m running track. With the Shine Awards, the activities can take place in a small school gym - even on a badminton court - or in the playground.
"It is important that we make athletics fun for the children but it is not just about participation. We want them to progress and eventually get out there and compete."
The Shine Awards programme provides data for teachers to calculate the progress of any pupil in a number of events. "It works at every level and teachers will find that it also works on fitness levels with children," says Mr Cameron.
He estimates that between 250 and 300 schools in Scotland will have a copy of the original Shine Awards programme, but concedes it may be lurking in the back of a cupboard somewhere. It is time to get it out, he says.
"It does not require a lot of specialised equipment for primary schools and I think most secondary schools will have basic equipment like hurdles and shot-puts.
"There is pressure on the summer term, with the exam diet and with schools now starting their next academic year during that term," Mr Cameron concedes. "In the past, we have not been able to put forward good resource material that is easy to access. I would contend that any teacher can follow this."
He believes the scheme fits ideally within the Active Schools programme and meets with the Scottish Executive's crusade to get children fitter. He is hoping that if more and more schools take it up, it will lead to more after-school activity and help link schools with local clubs. The school-club link is seen as crucial if talented children are to realise their potential.
As well as encouraging traditional athletics events, the Shine Awards scheme offers pupils aged 14 and over the chance to learn about judging and officiating.
An athletics meeting requires a lot of officials, such as timekeepers, track judges and stewards. Last weekend's Scottish Primary Schools Road Relay Championships required no fewer than 46 volunteer officials to enable it to run smoothly.
However, the number of volunteers willing to do the job is falling. For the sport to flourish, athletics is aware that it has to continue to recruit people who will act as officials.
Making track and field sports more prominent in schools is the first priority for Scottish Athletics.
"Sport Scotland has made athletics a strand one sport (which gives them access to top-level funding) but, if you look at most schools, they will offer football, rugby, swimming and maybe badminton as their curriculum sport. They do not offer athletics," Mr Cameron says.
"If you look at the colleges for teachers, athletics is not one of the sports they are taught, despite being a strand one sport. We are hoping to change this."
www.norwichunionshineawards.comThe Shine Awards CD-Rom, with lesson plans and guidance notes, costs pound;21.50. Contact Scottish Athletics, 9a South Gyle Crescent, Edinburgh EH12 9EB, tel 0131 539 7320