Former PE teacher John Cairney asks why Glasgow independents outrun state secondaries
In the eight relays at the Glasgow Schools Athletics Championships, all 24 medals for first, second and third places went to independent schools. It is a similar story in cross-country running and swimming where fee-paying schools compete against state schools.
Independent schools do not pay mere lip-service to the role of competitive sports and games. When John Duff, head of Kelvinside Academy, says that "you have to compete to bring out the best in yourself", he means it.
Gillian Burt, head of Craigholme School, says: "Building a team, being part of a team and supporting a team are skills for life. Children have to learn these transferable skills and we try to do this in several ways and a very important way is through sports." She, too, means it.
The prospectus at St Aloysius College refers to the value of sport and games in "helping pupils to accept both success and failure graciously". Whereas in state schools, extracurricular sport is seen as a bolt-on to the normal school day, the very concept of "extra" curricular is unknown to these independent schools. Games afternoons, and they all have them, often extend beyond the last bell and Saturday morning games can be compulsory or involve "a firm expectation" that all pupils take part.
When pupils are selected to represent the school on Saturdays, no one is excused to take up weekend casual employment. Most do not have to, but Mr Duff adopts a firmer line: "Saturday morning games are part and parcel of the curriculum requirement."
And it does not just start at the secondary stage. As Alison Denholm, a PE teacher at Craigholme, says: "We have the same staff working with girls from primary through to secondary. This gives teachers knowledge of the pupils' strengths and these can be developed at practices during and after school. This continuity is very important in producing successful performances."
This "continuity" might even begin among three-year-olds since more independents are introducing kindergartens. There can be little doubt that the priority given to games and sports overall is a major factor in producing high achievement at the secondary stage.
Mrs Burt says: "Craigholme tries to create an ethos of success and achievement whereby younger pupils are inspired by older ones and once you get into that pattern it is almost self-perpetuating."
Gary Douglas, head of PE and games at St Aloysius, suggests that "success in sport as in other things helps to motivate younger pupils and is good for the image of the school".
Another consideration is teacher time to provide such a wide spectrum of activities at such a high standard. One of the schools pays above the going rate with the expectation that staff will take on duties over and above classroom teaching, another pays non-PE teachers to assist on Saturday mornings and the third offers no financial inducement.
A major reason would appear to be that PE departments have not been required to undertake the massive development and teaching commitment associated with certificated courses. However hard they work, and they do, they have not had to deliver in this most demanding and rigorous curricular area. One school offers Higher in the sixth year and others offer limited modules.
"We have no room for it," Mr Duff says. "Standard grade places pressure on time and resources which could lead to other aspects of PE suffering," Mr Douglas maintains. Mrs Burt believes certificated courses have a limited currency in career terms.
This demonstrates a significant chasm in priorities between the two sectors. Why does the Inspectorate, whose remit covers the independent sector, apparently concur with these explanations while simultaneously putting pressure on state schools to introduce Standard grade?
Something else which distinguishes the sectors is the priority given to team games. Mr Douglas says: "Games are the proper vehicle for everything we consider to be good in PE." Mr Duff feels strongly that it is important to have "the incentive to win, though it does not have to be at first team level".
The time allocated to PE varies from school to school but all of them have organised games afternoons, at least one extends games session beyond the normal school day and another offers only games in curricular time from third year onwards.
These factors probably account for the success. But can state schools learn anything? Probably not a lot. Any attempt to develop sport and games in the state set-up should disregard the independent blueprint and address the cultural realities of the schools themselves. Realities, among other things, like the curricular demands on staff, the pressures on pupils to take weekend employment and their reluctance to stay behind after school, especially in winter, or even to travel to another part of the city.
Payments to staff might help, as should the appointment of sports co-ordinators, and initiatives such as inter-school competitions in school time would be beneficial.
Teachers in both sectors, especially PE staff, work extremely hard, though with different emphases. The independent approach works well in producing individual and team success. Teachers in state schools can take their successes in the curricular area, both in core and certificated PE.
It might have to remain that way unless the Government and the local authorities place more priority on developing sport.