The final whistle for schools football

25th March 2005 at 00:00
The ba's burst" was the Daily Mail headline over a story picked up from The TES Scotland. The "ba'" in question belongs to the primary school footballers of Paisley and District League, and it has been burst by Renfrewshire Council. At the plunge of a knife, the council has deflated its young pupils, as well as their "ba'", by blowing the whistle on after-school football.

The council says that parents and other volunteers who supervise matches and training sessions do not have insurance cover and fears it could be sued over accidents or injuries. So the football is cancelled until the problems are rectified.

I can't say I'm surprised. For some years I have stood at matches, one of a very few teachers, wondering about the status and experience of the parents who now run many school teams. It is not potential injuries which concern me but the questionable behaviour of some children and its acceptance by their accompanying adults. I ask myself if the headteachers know what is happening when their pupils are out of sight.

In a well-meant attempt to defuse the Paisley situation, a council spokesman said it was just that informal arrangements need to be formalised. Then comes the sting. The parents' insurance will require Disclosure Scotland clearance, and completion of courses in coaching, child protection and first aid. What's the betting that many parents won't complete this obstacle course? They just wanted to help their child and his friends.

But this is not a localised difficulty. Where Renfrewshire leads, other councils will soon follow. And it won't just be football. Netball, athletics and any other after-school activity run by parents will qualify.

The threat to extra-curricular activities can be lifted overnight on one condition. Teachers are covered by a council's public liability insurance so, if they participate, all fixtures will be reinstated. However, that is unlikely to happen. In Paisley, only 10 per cent of schools have teachers involved, a figure that probably applies to other areas too. The chief reason is that teachers are too busy "improving" their school.

Personal experience reminds me that my own involvement in extra-curricular activities has reduced dramatically in recent years. The football and drama survive, but I struggle to give them the time and continuity they deserve.

Planning for improvement and its associated paperwork and meetings take priority because that is what the system currently values.

Since it does not value extra-curricular activities, we miss out on the contribution that closer teacher-pupil relationships and frequent pupil achievements make to school ethos - or, to use a forgotten but apt phrase, to raising the "school spirit". So, yes, school improvement activities can hinder school improvement.

Independent schools appreciate extra-curricular activities and how they develop the individual and the school. They shout it aloud in their advertising. Yet, on the whole, it passes the state system by, although it is worth more than a hundred school improvement plans.

Most of us will sympathise with the predicament, but one group of people may be enjoying the confusion. Did you notice the word "league"? Be sure that the anti-competition lobby will have spotted it, too, with its implication of placings, trophies, winners and losers.

Well done to the Paisley Schools FA for fostering the enterprising attitudes now encouraged by the Scottish Executive and enshrined in our national priorities for education as well as continuing their competition in the face of the political correctness which so often affects primary schools football now.

I hope the Paisley league recovers, even if the omens are doubtful. The Renfrewshire spokesman said: "This is about making football safer for young people." But it's safe already and the only guarantee of complete safety is to have none at all.

The "ba'" may be burst for good.

Brian Toner is headteacher of St John's primary in Perth.

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