The right balance

21st March 2008 at 00:00
With the Olympics and Commonwealth Games coming soon to the UK, and the Scottish Government striving to increase children's physical activity, Douglas Blane reports on different approaches to sports schools: the elite and the comprehensive


A pounding rock rhythm shakes the floor as a slightly-built girl pushes a barbell high above her head. At the other end of the fitness suite, a young man dressed in black racks up the miles on a stationary cycle, while a small group in the centre dance nimble-footed aerobics with a chunky dumb-bell in each hand.

It's not the energy being expended that impresses, as much as the grunts that would accompany it in most gyms: there are none. It seems effortless. But Scotland's national centre of excellence for sports is no easy option, says Ian Anderson, headteacher at Bellahouston Academy in Glasgow.

"They have to make compromises, just as pupils do at the dance school, the music school and the other centres of excellence around Scotland."

Opened in 1999 with seven pupils and funding from the then Scottish Executive, the Glasgow School of Sport at Bellahouston Academy has 132 Secondary 1-6 students, who are aiming for, and often gaining, top honours in five sports. "We began with hockey and gymnastics," says School of Sport director Angela Porter. "We provide programmes also in athletics, badminton and swimming. These are all sports in which Glasgow has a strong infrastructure."

Applicants for the small-group tuition offered by the school's experts, who have coached and competed at national level, undergo a rigorous selection process. Applications, references, sports trials and interviews lead to 30 or so being offered a place at one of three entry points - first, third or fifth year.

Once students are accepted, it is all about balance, says Mr Anderson - and not just for gymnasts. "We want a balance between bringing out the best in talented young sportspeople and providing them with a good all-round education. It's why they're in T-shirts and shorts in one building and school uniform in the other. They are fully-fledged Bellahouston Academy pupils."

But eight periods pursuing excellence in a chosen sport - rising to 12 in S5 - have to be found somewhere. Creative and aesthetic subjects, technology, PE, RE and personal and social education are omitted from a School of Sport student's timetable. A range of coaching and sport leadership qualifications make up for slightly fewer national qualifications - six Standard grades in S4 rather than eight, then three Highers in S5.

Besides educational benefits, these close links with primary schools around the 15 education authorities from which students are drawn also ensure that Primary 7 pupils keen to come to the School of Sport understand the implications.

"In the lead-up to selection, a series of events and open days help children and their parents to decide what's best," says Mr Anderson. "Often it's the young person making the running. They are impressive in their degree of commitment to their sport and realistic about its effects on their education. That maturity, in fact, is one thing we look for."

This seems to be asking a lot of 11-year-olds, and could tip the scales in favour of articulate youngsters from aspirational families. It does not, says the director. "We have very few kids from middle-class backgrounds.

"Top sportspeople are different. They are used to balancing different demands on their time. It gives them a determination to succeed - not just on the court but in everything they turn their hand to."

While balancing sport and studies is key to success for individual students, integration of school and academy is vital for the enterprise as a whole, says Mr Anderson. When I came here four-and-a-half years ago, my first question was, 'What's in it for the academy?'"

The answer takes in many aspects of curriculum, ethos, learning and teaching, says Mr Anderson. It includes having high-achieving role models on campus and in the classroom, shared pride in the prowess of sports school students, and access to first-class facilities, whenever possible.

"It goes beyond that," says Mr Anderson. "This is a model that could, in the run-up to the Commonwealth Games, be replicated around the country. It is the best example we have of coaches working with small groups on setting targets and developing motivation, self-evaluation and interactive learning.

"In many ways that is what the best teachers do. I believe there are curricular, organisational and pedagogical lessons to be learnt. Integration is vital. That's why it's called the School of Sport at Bellahouston Academy."

912 pupils, of whom 132 are School of Sport

83.2 staff (academy), 20 (school)


Selective, non-residential national centre of excellence for sport

Pupils from 15 education authorities

Pupils integrated into school curriculum, while high-performance coaches develop their skills in athletics, badminton, gymnastics, hockey or swimming

pound;575,000 pa additional government funding


Over 60 pupils so far representing Scotland

Career paths of sports school students: university or college (60 per cent), employment (33 per cent), full-time athlete (7 per cent)

Boys' performance steadily improving (academy)

Girls' performance at Higher particularly strong (academy)


There is more to sport than running, jumping, winning games and whacking a ball over a net. Even the health benefits of fresh air and exercise don't exhaust what participation can do for young people and their school.

A sports comprehensive uses sport to "raise achievement, develop citizenship, improve ethos, reduce social exclusion and build positive lifestyles". It's a school that reaches beyond its gates to other schools, sports clubs and the wider community.

"Would I rather watch one of our school teams winning or losing?" Laurie Byrne, headteacher of St Maurice's High, Cumbernauld wonders briefly. "I like them to compete in the right way. But I love them to win. It's great that some of our kids will become elite athletes. We have some terrific talent.

"But that's not our major focus."

Sport is a vehicle for the personal, social and educational development of young people, says Mr Byrne - "all young people in every area of their lives." It's a vehicle that carries a big load.

It teaches valuable lessons about learning. "Young people watching somebody doing a gymnastic activity might think, 'I could never do that'. But if it's broken down into separate actions, with a bit of support, they can build up until they're doing it themselves - with a fantastic sense of achievement.

"They can carry that over into mathematics, modern languages, English. Self-belief is an issue for a lot of our kids. We explain that if they let the teacher take them through it a bit at a time, they can do it - just as they can with the physical activity."

Making connections across the curriculum is a continuing process, with maths teachers setting sports-related problems and English teachers running a sports journalism club. "We've done very well in health promotion, by linking science, home economics and PE."

Sport improves behaviour, particularly of pupils who are otherwise hard to reach. "I see a difference in young people with behaviour difficulties, through the discipline in sport. It impacts on how they conduct themselves throughout the school."

Children with additional needs are included. "One boy has Asperger's. But he's amazing with sports statistics. Youngsters in wheelchairs use their upper body in archery and basketball. It's about finding ways to get everyone involved."

School facilities and expertise are shared with the wider community. "A lot of this is what any good PE department should do," says PE teacher Lisa Palombo.

"But few schools provide as many opportunities for the community. We work with kids from associated primaries - and we go beyond that. We had a push on getting children from across the denominations to come to sports sessions. A lot of those primary kids now walk through the door as if it's their school."

A wide range of extra-curricular sports is provided in evenings and weekends, says Eleanor Skimming, PE principal teacher. "Parents use the fitness suite, while waiting for kids playing basketball, football, volleyball, badminton.

"We go into the primaries to teach and they come here for sport, right from Primary 1. So at the transition, they're already familiar with the school and are very confident. We want all this to be sustainable, so we get senior pupils on sports leadership courses helping to run sessions with young ones."

Many will not become great players, says Ms Palombo. "So they all get coaching and refereeing from an early age. I had a Primary 3 boy this week blowing the whistle better than most secondary pupils. When they come to secondary, it"s too late to develop that confidence. You have to catch them young."

Ms Skimming has a vision of technology providing a focus and a catalyst for all these efforts, she says: "We are going to have a big screen carrying sports and school news, and live reports and interviews from the sports journalists. Other departments are very interested."

A great deal is expected of the PE department, says Laurie Byrne - from running extra-curricular classes to forging links within the school and beyond. It also needs to get its own pupils through national qualifications.

"What I ask of my PE teachers is unreasonable," says Mr Byrne. "I admit it - I tell them so when they come for interview.

"But I am very proud - and so are the teachers - of being a caring community, with a focus on developing the talents of the children. We involve, include and care about all the kids. We want them to participate and achieve.

"But we also want them to win."

1,130 pupils, 87.4 staff


Sports comprehensive (one of four in North Lanarkshire): aims to use sport to raise aspiration and achievement in the school and wider community

Additional pound;100,000 pa initially, funding 1.5 extra PE teachers and one classroom assistant


Pupils participating weekly increased from 150 in 2002 to 450-plus

District and national level players and teams in basketball, football, athletics, rugby, wrestling, handball, tae kwon do

Days lost to exclusion halved since 2001 and absence rate reduced

5-14 attainment significantly increased

S4 attainment improving, with boys outperforming girls for the first time in gaining five or more Credit awards.

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