Making sense of the sports racket

28th July 2000 at 01:00
IT'S that time of year again. England were easily knocked out of the European football championships while Scotland did not even qualify, Henman and Rusedski disappointed at Wimbledon and in the Davis Cup, and the Scottish rugby team returned from New Zealand wishing they had not bothered going in the first place.

I could go on but you have the picture. Our appearances on the world stage may be disappointing but they are consistent in their outcome. What else is consistent is that each disappointment is followed by screeds of newspaper articles blaming the usual suspects, the weather, small population, lack of facilities and particularly schools and teachers.

This predictable reaction is accompanied by reminders of countries which have been running successful development programmes for a generation and are now reaping the rewards. The French football team, Swedish tennis players and the Australian sports academy are cited as examples of what can be achieved. The readers' letters which extend the newspaper debate are then followed by the announcement of government money to enhance the development of sport at school level.

Two years ago, after World Cup and Commonwealth Games failures, there were announcements of millions of pounds of grants linked to names like Team Sport Scotland, Sportscotland, Sports Search in Scotland and the Scottish Institute of Sport.

Any improvement programme takes years to realise results and those of us who work in primary schools know that it has to begin among eight to 10-year-olds where high interest in skills development is accompanied by enthusiasm and commitment, so it was encouraging to hear the chief executive of Sportscotland say: "To succeed we have to catch our youngsters at primary school age when lifetime habits are formed." So, has it turned out that way?

Not a far as I can see. Our own sizeable school has not benefited from additional sports money unless you count the occasional football fun day or indoor athletics festival but we all know that one-off events are nothing more than an enjoyable day out of the classroom for the children and a reduced load of marking for the teacher. Any use of money in the development of children's skills has to be planned and has to provide clear learning over an extended period of time and, so far, I have not noticed that we have been involved in any such project.

However, one event has come our way which has shown the hallmark of good sports development and that has been the Tennis Trail sponsored by the Cliff Richard Foundation. I am glad that I was persuaded to rethink my initial reaction of not wanting to have any contact with Britain's most endurable pop star and tennis fan. Children at P2, P3 and P4 have benefited from the 10 weekly lessons tailored to their abilities and our restricted accommodation. The instruction was encouraging, clear and straightforward. All the children made good progress which was rewarded at an assembly with posh certificates, while those who made spectacular progress had a chance to play in a local tournament with children from other schools.

Of course there are questions. What happens next? How can parents be encouraged to support their child in playing within a club setting? But the lessons met their target of providing all children with a level of skill they would otherwise not have achieved.

The way forward has to begin at primary school where, with proper investment and commitment, problems can be solved. The alternatives are to continue the cycle of failure followed by fine words, few actions and wasted money or to decide that sports achievement does not matter and stop complaining.

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