Scottish PE teachers liked what they saw on a visit to a sports school in France. Roddy McKenzie reports
If Anglo-French relations have not been the most cordial in recent weeks, the "auld alliance" still appears as strong as ever.
A party of Scottish junior volleyball coaches has just returned from France, where they have been studying the junior development programme with a view to adopting some of the practices in Scotland across all sports.
The system they studied in France is the subject of a report to SportScotland, formerly the Scottish Sports Council. Their report could revolutionise the link between sport and education in this country.
Rona Brodie, Team Sport Scotland co-ordinator for volleyball, headed the group of 11 secondary school teachers and one primary teacher who spent six days based at the CREPS De Wattignies, the local sports institute in Lille. The teachers came from all over Scotland, from Orkney to Troon, and will try to put some of the ideas they took on board into their local community.
The Scottish Volleyball Association (SVA) has had a link with the Lille set-up for eight years through former Great Britain coach Ralph Hippolyte, who used to coach the French national women's team.
As in this country, sport is financed through the Government and the private sector. But the French minister of sport and minister for education work closely together, and the French Government gives a percentage of the money collected from tax to its Olympic committee, which distributes it among 31 sports.
Governing bodies of sport are then given money linked to a four-year plan based on the Olympic cycles. Sponsorship money for richer sports like football and motor racing is taxed and given to the poorer sports.
The Government also appoints a technical director and a fitness director for each governing body. And a National Institute of Sport and Physical Education in Paris provides full-time coaching and fitness training for the national senior and junior teams.
Each of the 26 regions in France has a residential local sports institute (CREPS) and each decides which sports to support - 11 of the 26 currently have volleyball. Youngsters are recommended by their local club or by PE staff at their school, and they attend the institute for two years.
Although the emphasis is on selecting the most talented sports players, it is clear that the French see a sound education as a twin priority. If students fall behind with their studies or fail to attain the fitness levels required, then their contract is terminated before the two years are up.
The coaches at CREPS are paid at the equivalent rate to a PE teacher, and at the end of the two years students are given assistance in finding places at professional clubs in France.
All students are residential, even if they live nearby. At present there are 24 volleyball players at the CREPS in Lille - 12 boys and 12 girls aged 15 or 16.
"A typical day would see the students get up at 7am and have studies with their group between 11am and 12.30pm; teachers from nearby schools are contracted to take classes," explains Brodie.
"Their first training session is from 12.30 to 1.30, and then the students are taken by minibus to the local secondary school to join classes between 1.30 and 4.30.
"The second training session is from 5.15 to 7.15, with dinner at 7.30. After that there's an hour and a half of supervised study every evening. At weekends the students go home, where they play for their own clubs. They are also invited to attend national camps and to try out for the French national junior squad."
There has been some opposition to setting up residential schools of excellence in sport in Scotland. Some critics do not like to see children taken away from their family environment. There has also been criticism of a system that would tend to put sport before education. But the French seem to have achieved a happy solution by basing schools locally and working hard at developing a child's education.
Children who are particularly gifted at sport will not get through the system unless they achieve the correct grades in their studies.
CREPS is funded 40 per cent by regional authorities and 60 per cent by individual families or clubs. Families contribute pound;2,000 on average. But some clubs pay this if the student agrees a contract to play for the club when they finish their education.
"If families are on a low income, then there is support from the equivalent of the DHSS over there," Brodie points out.
The comments received from the Scottish teachers who studied the French system have all been favourable. "It has made me more aware of what can be achieved in the game when there is a clear system of development in place," said Gwen Gilbert, a PE teacher at Kirkwall Grammar.
"I am more aware of how players are developed to a world-class standard as a result of this visit," added Barbara Henderson, a PE teacher at Queensferry High, Edinburgh. "Success is not just achieved by having talented athletes but a network of support to facilitate the development of young players from beginner to national team player."
Brodie is also a big fan of the set-up: "Speaking with the teachers who attended and watched the French students in action, there was a feeling that we have children in Scotland who are just as talented. But there is no system of support in this country to see that they reach their full potential."