Dare to dream
Angela Porter, director of the Glasgow School of Sport at Bellahouston Academy, is convinced there is room for more sporting schools of excellence in Scotland. The Bellahouston model has been operating for two years and the Scottish Executive is expected to grant it official status as a centre of excellence at the end of this month with pound;1 million funding over three years.
Porter has just completed interviews with 30 Primary 7 pupils out of a total of 85 applications, and offered 20 of them places for next session. The sport school can take a maximum of 120 pupils from S1-6, with no more than 20 across each year group.
Bellahouston started with just two sports, hockey and gymnastics, but now covers five with swimming, athletics and badminton added. Pupils receive daily top-level coaching in chosen sports and have access to facilities at the Kelvin Hall and Bellahouston and Tollcross leisure centres.
The concept of a school of excellence has been criticised in some quarters. Sportscotland prefers the English model with its wider three-pronged approach to physical education, the community and specialist training. Physical education experts would have been happier to see the school "education-led (ie PE) rather than sports-led". And the Educational Institute of Scotland has concerns generally about the impact of specialist schools on comprehensive education, but more specifically about Bellahouston's criteria for access and how the concentration on sport will affect the child's overall curriculum. "What if a child at the school of sport has a reduced curriculum but then doesn't make the grade in sport?" asks Glasgow representative Willie Hart. But Porter believes the school has proved a success. She has the backing of Glasgow's depute director of education, Ian McDonald, who says he's "impressed by growth in pupil numbers and increasing potential talent of pupils attending."
The calibre of pupils is already extremely high, with youngsters including Charles Mills, aged 12, Scottish Under-12 butterfly champion and top athletes like Lynne Donaghy, aged 13, gold medallist at the British, Scottish and UK age group championships; Julie Sutherland, aged 14, gold medallist at the Northern European, Scottish Open and Scottish Junior Championships; and William Smith, 12, Scottish age group champion.
Angela Porter hopes pupils will achieve Commonwealth and Olympic games standards, so applicants must have proven talents in a sport.
Although prospective pupils are taken on young, the interview process is, she says, rigorous and the school also looks at non-sport areas where candidates must meet criteria.
"They are not at the school of sport just to play sport and get out of school work," argues Porter. "We look at everything about the candidate and assess their primary school report. First, we are looking for talent but they also have to show commitment and have the correct attitude both to their sport and school work.
"It's a misconception that, if you are good at sport, then you are not good academically. One of our second year boys tookthe year prize for academic work. But, of course, not all are like that and we just have to ensure they reach full academic potential while attending the sport school."
Ian McDonald says: "Parents have confidence in the system and confirm the educational attainment at the sport school."
The school was set up as a partnership between Glasgow city council's cultural and leisure services and education departments. It takes candidates from within the Glasgow area and is non-residential, though Porter does not rule out the possiblity of residential places in the future.
The approach is based on the established Dance School of Scotland at Knightswood. On average, pupils have two periods of coaching during their school day, after which they join the rest of their year for academic classes. They are then involved with their individual sports after school. They receive eight hours of coaching a week during school time - they do not take part in regular PE classes, and do less religious education, drama, art and technology - but time spent on sport out of school hours can vary.
For example, any of the hockey players will have three nights of coaching at clubs after school hours but gymnasts can be involved in extracurricular activity for as long as 26 hours a week when their weekend competitions are taken into account.
The school offers a full support framework by providing equipment as well as coaching. It also helps to fund pupils attending competitions at home or even abroad if it is thought important to their development.
The school is linked to Strathclyde University's fitness monitoring programme which uses state-of-the-art equipment to measure an athlete's progress and ensure they do not burn out at an early age.
Pupils may have six years at the school or could leave after four if they are looking for employment or want to go into coaching.
Much depends on how the child is progressing in both their sport and academic work. There has not been any cause to terminate a child's stint at the sport school, but Porter says if that were to happen, they could carry on with the normal curriculum at Bellahouston Academy.
"Obviously, we cannot predict what will happen two or three years down the line. Their performance in the school of sport is constantly monitored and they are tested every month," she explains "If it came to it, there could be de-selection and it would need to be done as early as possible so pupils don't suffer academically."
It is unlikely, however, as the pupils are given in-depth advice in such things as lifestyle management and nutrition, and medical and physiotherapy treatment.
"It can be difficult when you are dealing with such young children, as you don't know how they are going to develop but in areas like swimming and gymnastics, they are already quite established in their sport," Porter goes on. "Teachers could not provide the coaching we need. For example, we have a gymnastics coach, Marius Gherman, who competed for Romania in the Olympic Games. We also have top-level coaches in our other sports.
"We could take more pupils but five sports really is enough for us. Hopefully another school could cater for other sports."