What can Scotland learn from Finland's long experience of elite schools for athletes? David Henderson investigates
Jari Piirainen, youth sports director at the Finnish Olympic Committee, is refreshingly honest about the future of specialist sport high schools: "There's a lot of work to be done if they are to survive."
Finland and Scotland are of similar size. Scotland is beginning to establish different models of sport school. Finland already has them, but now ministers have ordered a clamp on expansion of these schools and the whole debate has reopened.
Politicians question the sporting and social return of the extra investment - around pound;550 more per pupil than mainstream education. Twelve high schools now specialise in sport and there are unlikely to be many more. Any school will be free to focus on sport, but without the additional cash. Ministers contend there is already enough flexibility in the curriculum for extra sport.
Sporting schools have a 20-year history in Finland. But only since 1992 have the 12 high schools that cater for 16-19 year-olds with academic ability enjoyed legal status as specialist schools. A further 19 high schools have opted for unofficial status. Still others want to join the bandwagon, bringing prestige and funds to their school. It's another avenue to security when rolls are dropping.
In Finland 16 is the youngest age for specialist coaching. Before that the recipe is for broad physical education. Some 1,500 students are currently on sports courses in more than 50 disciplines, taking three mornings or afternoons off studies to concentrate on their chosen sport under expert coaching. They are able to extend their studies over an extra year. The other post-16 option is vocational school, and 10 of them received cash this year for sports.
The only specialist sports school in Helsinki, Makelanrinteen Urheilulukio, is at the centre of much of the current debate. It enrolls 425 sports students from around the country, but officially has space for only 160. Neighbourhood students have been unable to secure a place at this local high school, much to their own and parents' dismay. Ministers may accept the need to establish one more specialist school to relieve the pressure.
Mr Piirainen at the Olympic Committee welcomes the sports school development, but he still has doubts. "In future, we must be more critical in taking in the athletes," he argues. Many do not become top athletes and will never go on to win medals.
The top football team, HJK Helsinki, which appeared in the Champions' League last year, helps train the footballers at the Makelanrinteen school. Yet only one in 10 make it as star players. Others go on to play semi-pro or amateur.
That does not worry Tuomo Saarnio, HJK youth coach: "They've got a very good school education, so it is not a problem if they're not a star player. I think it's a good system because there is not so much pressure."
Four out of 25 first team players in the current squad have come through the sports school ranks. Antti Niemi, Rangers' reserve goalkeeper, is another product of Finnish sports schools.
At Sotkamo sports high school in central Finland, 116 of 370 students are on specialist sports courses. The town of 11,000 is the leading centre for Nordic skiing and Finnish baseball, the two principal sports, and pulls in students from around the country.
Headteacher Ari Kontro points to a string of successes in national youth championships, and half the adult team in the Nordic combined event are Sotkamo graduates. Three out of four in the Nordic junior team attend the school.
Jari Piirainen believes Sotkamo is one of the better illustrations. Across Finland, the 16-19 age range sport schools are viewed as reasonably successful, at least by sports bodies. But for Mr Piirainen the key question is what happens after students' three or four years at high school.
"The 20-plus age range is a big challenge," he says. "We are losing a lot of young athletes around 21 because they realise they're behind in their studies."
Peak ages for many sports come some years beyond the early twenties. When finance is tight, continuous training is difficult. Then it's easy to plunge from the highest levels. Very few Finnish athletes make big money, and most depend on their studies to carry them through to a career. New methods of combining higher education and training are essential, according to Mr Piirainen.
Mirja Virtala, senior adviser on sports in the education ministry, offers some advice to Scots about to set up sports schools: "It's a good system but it's education for a life after a career in sport."
FITNESS FOR COMPUTER POTATOES
All pupils at Tenetti secondary in Sotkamo enjoy a minimum of two hours physical education a week. But this year one-third (140 pupils) have opted for an extra two hours of "expanded sports" and another 40 have signed up for extra dance.
It sounds rosy enough. But the union of physical education teachers in Finland still complain that two hours is insufficient to counter the negative effects on fitness and health of the couch and computer potato generation. They want a minimum of four hours.
The Finnish curriculum for 13-16 year-olds is less rigidly controlled than its Scottish counterpart. It was perhaps logical that Tenetti should make sport a priority when its pupils feed into the neighbouring sports high school.
Fourteen and 15-year-olds must do 21 hours a week of compulsory subjects, but have freedom over nine hours. PE and sport are popular and there is no examination system such as Standard grade. Classes are practical and activity based.
Twenty keen or talented students in their final year have taken a further two hours in a specialist sports class. Government ministers say this type of freedom provides the alternative to specialist sports schools in the years beyond compulsory schooling.
PE teacher Elina Jylha says the aims are simple: "Happiness and recreation, to keep them moving throughout their lives and to give them hobbies."
All pupils are tested for fitness twice a year within PE time, assessing themselves and completing a record of their performance. Tests can take up to 90 minutes and PE staff follow up with an interview.
The tests include a 50 metre run, a 2,000 metre run for boys and 1,500 for girls, a standing long jump, pull-ups, 10 metre shuttle runs and sit ups. An assessment of flexibility completes the programme.
Pupils can compare themselves against their peers and national fitness standards. "They are not good at running," Mrs Jylha admits.
Such are her concerns about fitness levels, she has been known to march her classes swiftly to the sports centre a kilometre up the road.
* Finnish youngsters are in average physical condition by European standards, according to university researchers. They recommend that young people should work up a sweat exercising four times a week for a total of at least four hours.
Dr Heimo Nupponen of Jyvaskyla University warns: "A third of our boys and a half of our girls do not meet the minimum recommendation. According to the more stringent recommendation, only a third of the boys and a fifth of the girls exercise adequately."
WHERE TO GO FOR LEADING EDGE WHITE STUFF
With the best set of cross country ski training facilities in the world on its doorstep, it is easy to understand the attraction of Sotkamo sports high school.
An adjacent sports institute produces back-up for top senior athletes and adds to the quality of training support for juniors. Throw in a 1.2 km long ice tunnel where skiers can train all year, and you begin to appreciate that this is leading edge white stuff.
The top coaches and facilities pull in students from around Finland for the sports high school - and not only in skiing. Finnish baseball, an offshoot of the American obsession, is big time sport. Parents pay up to pound;3,000 a year to set up their talented offspring for a life of sport. But finance appears less of a problem than it might in Scotland.
Since students are at least 16 and already used to travel and training away from home, residential living presents fewer difficulties.
Students represent their clubs and not the school. To gain entry, they must have talent to perform at national level and display enough academic ability to be university material. Sixteen of the 75 courses needed for "matriculation" - the leaving exam - can be sports based.
Ari Kontro, Sotkamo's headteacher, says: "The main principle is that at sport school you can train hard and study hard. One of our aims is to create the base to be a world champion."
Sports students invariably take an extra fourth year to complete their course.
Minna Tanskanen, the only full-time coach at the school, adds: "We are teaching them how to train in their own sports and how to become independent athletes. We're teaching training principles and how to build them up."
Students train between 8 and 11 in the morning three times a week and come back after school for sport lessons, interviews and event strategies. Each sport discipline has an experienced coach and the local community provides most of the training facilities.