Scoring while you learn;Opinion

2nd April 1999 at 01:00
Scotland should follow France's lead in looking for innovative ways to introduce sporting success into the curriculum, says John Clayton

IF KENNY DALGLISH has his way, Glasgow Celtic Academy could become Scotland's leading facility for training young football superstars. There are many other schemes to develop the sporting talent of the nation, whether that is identified as Scotland or Britain.

For example, should we emulate the Australians and their academy for summer sports, or the Austrians and their Hochschule for winter sports? A shade cynically, one can't help observing that such ideas are pursued in the national press in the aftermath of debacles involving the English football and cricket teams. Bandwagons have been leapt on by passing politicians of every persuasion, but these are proposals that we should heed.

Charlie Raeburn, chairman of the Scottish Schoolsport Federation, described in The TES Scotland three years ago the principles that should underlie any development. The most important is extending and developing a child's talent within the total well-being of the child and society.

In striking the right balance, we in Scotland face problems no different from elsewhere. As in other countries there is the additional hazard of vested interests - the obviously commercial, the more or less transparent job preservation and the less patent maintenance of administrative empire.

We should look at solutions adopted by other nations, but tailor them to suit our cultural, financial and other aspirations. In that spirit it is worth examining a system working well in our near-neighbour and longstanding ally. France has done rather well recently with the round ball and tomorrow may again show flair with the oval version, this latter from a narrower base of recruitment than traditionally enjoyed in Britain.

In a small but significant number of French secondary schools there is a network of sections sports-etudes. The concept is simple. Bolted on to an otherwise normal secondary is a section in which some 30-50 pupils have an identified talent for a sport.

Each section deals with a particular sport. Some are geographically apposite. The ski-etudes sections are all in alpine regions, while rugby-etudes are particularly strong in the south-west.

Because the sections are linked to normal schools there are a number of benefits compared with a self-standing regional or national academy. Good quality teaching of other parts of the curriculum is on hand, thereby maintaining rounded development and other career possibilities, not necessarily sports linked.

Travel and weekly or termly boarding are minimised, as therefore is separation from family and social milieu. Talented children continue to mix daily with children of fewer or other talents, and, as importantly, their peers mix with them.

Meanwhile the separate nature of the section means that young sportsmen and women can have their timetables modified on a daily, weekly, termly, seasonal or annual basis to give priority to the sport when necessary and to work the rest of their curriculum and regime round these needs. Specialist coaches can develop talent to very high levels without necessarily or entirely removing a sport from its school context.

In looking at overseas examples, we cannot expect to import a perfect off-the-peg fit. We need to make our own adjustments. That includes matching the sporting and cultural characteristics of our society.

For its part, France since Napoleon has been a more self-consciously structured and professedly egalitarian society. An initiative in the past few years, with close collaboration among at least three ministries and all national governing bodies, has established "high-level pathways" for athletes of identified talent at various grades. Athletes have access to good facilities and, perhaps as importantly, school or other schedules modified to suit the needs of their sporting development.

This system exists independently but not in isolation from the sport-and-study sections and is particularly suited to those who, often by the nature of their sport, have achieved national or international status while still of school age. Surely there is food for thought for us in Scotland.

John Clayton is vice-chairman of the Scottish Schoolsport Federation.

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