David Henderson reports on the encouraging success of a new scheme aimed at boosting pupils' after-school activities.
Three years ago, only 68 pupils at Broxburn Academy took part regularly in after-school sport. Now over 330, or 44 per cent of the total roll, join in 10 sports.
It is a significant improvement and the kind of results West Lothian Council, SportScotland and Scottish Executive ministers hope can be mirrored around the country, now that the sports co-ordinator scheme has taken root in 170 schools in 19 authorities.
The scheme, costing pound;6 million over four years, is one of three national priorities for school and youth sport and the cornerstone of the campaign to strengthen extra-curricular activity. Local authorities have to find half the cash, which may explain the reluctance of 13 councils since the scheme was first announced by Brian Wilson, the former education minister, at a school sport conference two and a half years ago.
West Lothian's pilot began in all 11 secondaries in 1996 and this authority has more experience than many others. Charlie Raeburn, its sports and leisure manager, who doubles as chair of the Scottish Schoolsport Federation, welcomes anything that improves levels of after-school activity but cautions: "This is only a first step."
Evelyn Roach, a physical education teacher at Broxburn who is the sports co-ordinator, adds: "This is a kick-start and I definitely feel there are major benefits for the school but there's going to have to be more activity. Sport and PE needs a higher profile." Ms Roach has a day a week to co-ordinate sports, arrange fixtures and events, recruit staff and pupils, organise training and generally promote the initiative. Time is snatched between teaching. Fourteen staff, three of whom are PE teachers, have volunteered as organisers in a programme that runs five days a week, lunchtimes and Saturday mornings.
"They're a fantastic bunch of people and a 'thank you' is worth as much as a bit of cash in hand," Ms Roach comments.
Her aim is simple enough: "It's to get the children involved in a healthy lifestyle, rather than sitting in front of computers or hanging around the streets. But there's still a lot to be done and over half the school is not involved.
"A lot of youngsters have jobs after school, or have to do the shopping and there's a lot of pressure on them without the school environment." She hopes youngsters will themselves decide to take their sports further once they taste the experience of regular activity and the social interaction that accompanies sport.
At Broxburn, football, hockey and basketball teams compete in leagues and cups. Ms Roach explains: "Children are given the choice whether to compete or come along and enjoy the fun. There are some who are quite happy to dawdle along and play at their own ability range but they still want activity and a wee bit of competition." Football is popular among the boys, and fitnessaerobics for the girls.
Ms Roach, who has been in teaching for six years, believes more time would be helpful if the scheme and numbers are to expand. Better equipment and facilities would also help, as would improved links to local clubs. Under the new funding scheme, each secondary will receive pound;1,000 to spend as co-ordinators want. That is welcomed.
Elsewhere in West Lothian, numbers of pupils taking part are well up on previous figures, although perhaps two-thirds of pupils remain outside.
And while political and sporting leaders may wish the scheme to be implemented widely, local reality sometimes sinks in. The enthusiasm of headteachers and their staff is vital. As one co-ordinator put it: "Heads value the scheme but when push comes to shove, it's not top priority."
In a story mirrored across Scotland, the emphasis on meeting exam targets and academic success has elbowed out the focus on extra-curricular. Study support has become the major non-curriculum activity, with teachers giving up after-school hours to help pupils raise their attainment. In some schools, over 80 per cent of staff are involved and cases have been reported of teachers being paid pound;17 an hour.
Sport, in contrast, is often left in the shadow and with voluntary commitments. Some teachers prefer to take their sports groups at lunchtime, the better to leave their precious after-school hours free for other duties. This problem was expressed vociferously at the school sports national conference early last summer in Livingston.
West Lothian co-ordinators are up-beat about the initiative but believe far more could be done. Like any scheme, it looks fine on paper, although the practice tells a different story. Some schools complain after-school sport is exceptionally difficult because of transport logistics. Schools which happen to draw from a large catchment area, a group often including Roman Catholic secondaries, find no extra financial support is available to ferry pupils home after sport. Arts activities are given higher priority and draw additional funds. A lack of attractive facilities is another hurdle for many. School gyms and playing fields do not always conform to highest standards and there may be a mismatch between pupils' favoured activities and the ability of staff to deliver. As one co-ordinator put it: "How do I cater for 60 boys who want to play football?" Keeping sports going is another major task when staff move school and volunteers are lost. Often it is the younger, ambitious teacher who moves on. More senior staff may be reluctant to donate time when pressures such as Higher Still are present and take priority.
A more basic feature affecting school sports for many institutions is the class divide. Schools which are serving disadvantaged communities find it difficult to attract youngsters to activities. Parents in more affluent areas are prepared to buy kit, act as helpers and drivers, and generally offer the support their children need.
That is one reason some believe there is a need for full-time co-ordinator posts. Co-ordinators on one day a week are merely a start in the bid to address significant problems in young people's levels of physical activity and sport.