Speyside High does not take things lying down, and it is the pupils who are leading the way. Jean McLeish reports
You couldn't get a more Scottish setting than Speyside High's location in Aberlour, on the banks of the River Spey at the edge of the Cairngorm National Park.
This is where they make shortbread that sells the world over and almost every signpost points to an internationally known whisky distillery. Children walk in some of the country's most fantastic scenery and practise water sports on idyllic stretches of the river.
But like all Scottish schools, Speyside High has its share of pupils who need to get more physically active, especially the girls. For the past year, the school has been taking part in a national pilot project to get young women more engaged with PE and extra-curricular activity.
This lunchtime, an all-female aerobics group of staff and senior students is hard at work, keeping pace with the music that's pulsing out through the games hall. This was the idea of some sixth-year girls in the pupils' health-promoting schools group.
Morag McDowall, 17, is preparing to study medicine and gave up PE, which is optional in fifth and sixth year, to concentrate on academic work: "I did enjoy it up until fourth year," she says. Morag is one of the instigators of this aerobics session led by an outside instructor. "It puts girls off, doing exercise in front of boys, especially the younger ones," she says.
This weekly session attracts up to 25 women staff and senior girls, several of whom will have abandoned PE in favour of other studies. The fact that this session is a pupil-led initiative is key to its popularity, according to the Active Schools co-ordinator at Speyside, Carol Fetch, who works with children in the nine feeder primaries.
"We're trying to let the girls take the lead and get their ideas on what activities they'd like to take part in. I could go about organising 100 different clubs for them, but they're not interested in that," she says. "There's no point in putting something on that they don't want to do."
A taster dance session in "jazz-ercise" didn't hit the spot with the girls, so sometimes a bit of trial and error is involved. "A lot of the girls didn't like the competitiveness and the team games at the high school - or with the after-school clubs. They didn't think there was enough variety," Ms Fetch reports from the findings of a survey among younger girls, collated by sportscotland, which managed the pilot.
PE teacher Hilary Dawson says efforts have been under way for some time to encourage girls' activity, like allowing them to wear tracksuit bottoms and tops instead of shorts and T-shirts. Compulsory swimming in mixed sessions, which was unpopular with girls, has been dropped and there's now single-sex tuition in third and fourth year
"We've also put in more choices so it's a little more varied, we've got games and badminton and now we're trying to put in the likes of aerobics and gymnastics," Ms Dawson says.
Some girls in third and fourth year are particularly disaffected with PE but even among girls who enjoy physical activity, there is reluctance to give 100 per cent.
"I think here, and probably in a lot of places, there's a culture of 'girls do not want to show that they are competitive, they don't want to show that they are good at sport' and so the top of every class tend not to play as they should," says Ms Dawson.
"Over the years there's been a culture of 'You don't do that, that's not cool, you don't do that in class'. And then maybe they're not now able to do it, or to get over that hurdle, if you like."
As part of the Girls in Sport and Physical Activity Pilot Programme, activities have also been developed involving youngsters from Speyside's feeder primary schools. "I tried to carry on stuff they had been doing at the primary level, so that they have a pathway once they get up to the high school. So trampolining was one of those activities," Ms Fetch says.
That started as a holiday programme and was continued by the P7 pupils as an after-school club with an outside coach when they came to the high school. "Trampolining was good, because they can make it competitive if they want to. But the first years who come along are coming for socialising really and they're getting their exercise without thinking about it."
Girls in P7 at nearby Rothes Primary have taken the initiative and organised a cheerleading club, and they'll be showing off their routines when Rothes FC takes to the pitch. A performance dance group, the Speyside Stars, has grown out of the after-school dance club on Friday afternoons.
Fourth-year pupil Erin Taylor, 15, is here for aerobics and is already convinced of the worth of PE: "Me and my friends are in girls' football. You might not be keen on it first thing, but once you hear it's good and you go yourself, it is good - and it's good for you and it's good fun."
The Fit for Girls pilot, which has run in 27 schools, is now being extended to schools across the country.