Academic demands are hitting track and field events, writes Roddy Mackenzie, but a scheme for youngsters offers hope
If ever the British Aerospace Scottish Schools' Track and Field Championships have been put under strain, it is this year. A combination of staggered Easter holidays and late exams has left schools with little time to focus on the championships, which begin today at Grangemouth.
The games are the focal point of the schools' athletics calendar and this year 225 schools have entered, which compares favourably with recent years. However, many pupils did not return from exam leave until this week, which has left the athletes little time to train properly for their events.
The Scottish Schools' Athletic Association says it will try to schedule the championships later next year, but Kay Cherrie, vice-president of the SSAA and development officer for athletics in Glasgow, says there is no easy solution with the summer term being so short.
"We will look at the situation," says secretary Linda Trotter. "We cannot have the championships any earlier and the Higher Still exams will always be late.
"Entries have kept pretty constant. It's just that the pupils have had their noses to the grindstone and are then going straight into the championships."
Miss Cherrie believes increasing academic pressure on pupils is making it more difficult for state schools to compete against independent schools.
"The certification of physical education has made a difference in the past few years. Schools in the private sector can concentrate more on developing athletes during curriculum time, whereas state schools have to spend the time working towards Standard grades, Highers and Higher Still exams.
"There is even increased pressure on after-school time," she says. "The emergence of homework clubs has hit athletics, as parents will always put the emphasis on academic qualifications and want their children to attend those clubs after school as opposed to sports activities."
Nevertheless, Miss Cherrie is optimistic about the future of athletics in the state sector in the Glasgow area. Sixteen schools in the city now have sports co-ordinators and another four will have soon. There are plans for every school in the city to have a sports co-ordinator within four years.
There is no doubt Glasgow has access to some of the best facilties in Britain for athletics, with the Kelvin Hall, Scotstoun and Crown Point all playing important roles in recent years.
"It has been a bonus having the Kelvin Hall, especially with the weather we have in Scotland," Miss Cherrie says. "It has given us a top-level indoor facility on our doorstep.
"In March, we were able to stage development days: three for secondary schools and two for primary schools."
The entries for the Glasgow Schools' Championships last Wednesday at Scotstoun were up on last year. A decision was taken to base events on year groups rather than age groups, so that the youngsters were competing against pupils of the same year, and it proved a popular move.
Glasgow is one of three areas (North Ayrshire and the Borders being the others) that are being used for a pilot scheme for Sportscotland's Sports Interactive scheme. The scheme concentrates on primary and S1 pupils, challenging them to try a range of sports skills and tasks, and then feeds the information into a computer to look at aptitude for different sporting activities. In this way, talented athletes will be able to be identified at the age of 10 or 11, so they will have a chance to receive specialised coaching and be filtered towards athletics clubs.
There has been concern that the standards of some athletics events have not improved much in the past 30 years, but by identifying talent at an early stage it is hoped youngsters will have the chance to gain access to club coaching to help them reach their potential.
There is traditionally a drop-off in interest in the sport when athletes, particularly girls, leave school. Miss Cherrie says the trend is worsening as there is more choice for youngsters nowadays. "Ten or 15 years ago there only seemed to be the choice of football, rugby, athletics and swimming in the state schools, but that has changed with so many other sports coming on stream.
"Although there has been concern about the standard of some events in athletics, I think the sport goes through peaks and troughs like any other. Some years it can be the girls who are doing well with the boys lagging behind, and other times it is the boys who are better than the girls.
"On the whole, I'm optimistic about the future as there are so many different developments and there are more opportunities for schoolchildren than ever before."