Edinburgh has launched a scheme to encourage primary children to try different sports and go on to join local clubs, reports Roddy Mackenzie.
Sporting Chance, an initiative from the City of Edinburgh Council's community education department, is giving hundreds of primary schoolchildren the chance to dabble in sport.
As part of a nationwide strategy to improve health through fitness, the council has been given a grant of pound;800,000 over the next four years by the Scottish Executive, through the Lothian Health Improvement Fund, to encourage children aged nine to 12 to take up sport. The initiative provides coaching in kwik cricket, mini tennis, little athletics and a combination of gym activities, such as aerobics, motor skills, salsa and yoga, under the name of Fit Club.
A successful pilot project was run from January to June in 23 primary schools in north-west Edinburgh. Now the scheme will expand into other areas of the city, probably starting with the greater Leith area, by 2004.
Coaches will visit schools for a taster session in school time and thereafter offer to take an after-school club for pupils to attend. If children enjoy the after-school clubs and still want more, then a community club offering the sport could be set up in the neighbourhood.
It is anticipated that this initiative will end the necessity for children to travel across the city to play some sports.
If a youngster is not particularly keen on one sport, then the following term he or she will get the opportunity to try another.
During the October school holidays, P4-P7 children across Edinburgh were offered the chance to try 15 sports, including basketball, golf, sailing and go-karting, at various venues.
Robin Yellowlees, the city council's community education sports development officer, emphasises that participation is the aim of the project. "We're not trying to select children for teams," he says. However, if children are keen enough to take the fourth step - from taster to after-school club to community club and then on - they will be pointed in the direction of a local junior club.
The project manager, Peter Steindl, is a noted cricketer and a former development officer for the Scottish Cricket Union. The coaches taking part in the scheme are all qualified to national level. There are four full-time coaches directing the activities and they are supported by a network of part-time coaches.
The four sports were chosen not only because they are a mix of team and individual sports tailored to primary school-age children, but also because coaches can arrive at schools with all the necessary equipment in a bag, explains Mr Yellowlees.
"We also wanted to widen children's sporting horizons in schools where predominantly football is played.
"The third reason why we went for these sports is that they are non-contact. If children get crunched in a tackle in the first five minutes of experiencing football, it can put them off sport for the rest of their days."
Mr Yellowlees says the response to the pilot from both pupils and teachers has been "terrific" but he is aware that primary schools can be fickle about sport, hence the more strategic approach.
"Lack of facilities has been a major problem," he says.
"At independent schools, the junior school tends to be on the same campus as the senior school and they can use the facilities and get the benefit of their PE staff.
"(State) Primary schools get teachers with a sporting background by chance. Even then they may not have the confidence to coach a lot of children in specific sports."
"And even if there is a teacher with a good sporting background in a primary school, if they get promotion and move on to another school, you find that the sport can die at their original school.
"Here, we have coaches coming in with specific skills and we will tie in to the primary schoolsecondary school sports co-ordinators to see how best to take the scheme forward in future."
Joyce Gilmour, the headteacher at Ferryhill Primary, one of the pilot schools, is enthusiastic about the benefits of the project.
"The fact that it is done in-house with coaches coming to the school is excellent," she says. "It means there are no transport issues and parents are not involved in ferrying children to and from different centres: that is the key.
"The variety of sports is also excellent. I'd never have thought we'd be playing cricket but the kids love it.
"The coaches have been first-class and the fact that they are top quality coaches has been great.
"I think the coaches have received a buzz out of it themselves as they have been met with so much enthusiasm from the children.
"I know other headteachers have had similar experiences."
Mr Yellowlees is confident that Edinburgh's model would stand up to scrutiny elsewhere. If a sporting habit can be engendered in children at an early age, then there is hope it will continue into adulthood and it is anticipated that an increase in sport and physical activity will bring down health costs. A recent Government survey shows it currently spends pound;1,135 a head on health compared to pound;1.38 a head on sport.