PLAYERS AS young as 10 are set to be skimmed off by senior clubs in a move that could deal a fatal blow to schools football.
The country's top 10 clubs and the Scottish Football Association are hardening their stance ahead of talks with schools officials which are certain to underline the divergent interests of education and professional football.
Roger Mitchell, chief executive of the Scottish Premier League, and Craig Brown, national coach and a former primary headteacher, say Scotland must fall into line with the rest of the world and relegate schools football "to a back seat".
Mr Brown said: "The elite should be handled by the elite." In France, schools football is "almost non-existent", he says. Clubs there are responsible for the education of young players, employing private tutors.
Mr Mitchell wants the clubs to adopt a more formal form of registration similar to a scheme in England, where senior clubs take sole responsibility for the elite and the Football Association, not the schools, is in charge of organising international school-age teams.
"The professional clubs have not been blameless in the past and have dipped in and out of the market. We are now offering exclusivity in exchange for minimum standards of coaching and facilities," Mr Mitchell said.
In England, league clubs are required to reach a minimum set of standards before they are allowed to register boys for a year in a football academy or centre of excellence. Clubs are monitored by the league and visited at least three times a year.
In Scotland, only Celtic currently ban youth players from playing for school teams. The Parkhead club takes about 80 boys aged 12-16. If other teams follow, 800 players could be lost to schools football. But if clubs followed the league's recommendation about reducing the starting age to 10, this could cream off as many 2,000 school-age players.
Bernard Fagan, head of St Ambrose High, Coatbridge and recipient of the Scottish Schools' Football Association's long service award for taking school teams for 25 years, argues that the league's approach is in conflict with the educational ethos schools are being encouraged to promote.
"There is tension between the exclusivity suggested by the league and the notion of inclusivity which comprehensive schools are supposed to be about. Inclusion is not just about catering for the less able and the deprived. The most able and talented of our young people also have an important contribution to make in schools, in extracurricular as well as curricular time," Mr Fagan said.
John Watson, general secretary of the schools association, says the issue is not whether school-age players are taken over by the clubs but at what age. "We feel that an elite player cannot be identified until about the age of 14 or 15. Up to that age the young player should have a foot in both camps."
Stewart Neilson, principal teacher of physical education at Banff Academy and national coach to the under-18s, expressed doubts about the ability of some clubs to provide an appropriate experience.
"I don't believe that the senior teams have consistent structures in place to fully benefit the boys they are taking in and I am not convinced that the seniors are the best equipped to deal with the maturation needs of people who are children first and football players second. Some clubs acknowledge this by appointing teachers to their development staff, so not only are children being skimmed off, but teachers as well," Mr Neilson said.
He wants safeguards to ensure that if a boy is "discarded" by a club he is relocated in a secure football environment.