A programme designed to develop and identify sporting talent among school-aged athletes has made a "significant contribution" to improving their performance, according to an independent evaluation.
The East Lothian Council scheme - which has no identified budget and involves pupils in training before, during and after school - was found, in particular, to have improved the young athletes' sport-specific skills and fitness.
The Performance Athletes in School (PAiS) programme was also found to have had an impact on participants' level of achievement in their sport of choice, their attitude to winning and determination. Injury rates fell and athletes also improved their academic attainment.
One parent described how her daughter, who is specialising in badminton but suffers from dyslexia, hated school and was bottom of her class before PAiS. But fear of losing her place on the programme gave her the incentive to do better.
The parent said: "She is more organised and she always catches up with the work she misses. Her organisational strategies have really improved; likewise her grades."
Similarly, a "hockey parent" described the way in which the discipline of training with PAiS had become reflected in her daughter's application to her school work. And the parent of a boy specialising in hockey said that before PAiS, it had been "impossible to get him up for school", but now 7am starts were not a problem.
Nevertheless, the researchers made eight recommendations for improvement, including the need for "more strategic academic support for athletes".
While the athletes felt their schoolwork had improved significantly over the period of their involvement with PAiS, most still expressed concerns that their progress had been compromised, the researchers found.
One athlete said: "I am missing English and falling behind. My teacher is not giving me catch-up time." Another said: "I am missing geography. My teacher went mental because he thinks I am missing lessons on purpose."
A weekly homework club run during PAiS time was advocated by the researchers.
This would help the athletes keep up with their studies while demonstrating "the synergy between academic expectations and the demands of the programme", they said.
They also called for sports specialisation within PAiS to take place later; the youngsters to be provided with a mentor; and links with national governing bodies of sport in Scotland to be made more explicit (see panel below).
The independent evaluation of PAiS's first year in operation was funded by the Winning Scotland Foundation and carried out by the Institute for Sport and Physical Activity Research at Bedfordshire University.
PAiS was launched in East Lothian in 2008 after a survey of 120 young athletes and their parents uncovered overwhelming support for school timetables to be modified to accommodate specific sports coaching.
A total of 39 athletes started on the scheme; this year 53 youngsters signed up to specialise in one of seven targeted sports: rugby, football, badminton, basketball, swimming, disabled sports and hockey.
The athletes receive six hours' coaching a week before, during and after school. PAiS is led by East Lothian Council sports development officers who work in partnership with strength and conditioning coaches and lecturers from Edinburgh's Telford College.
The target sports' governing bodies were involved in the design and delivery of PAiS and a close working relationship with the Edinburgh University's Fitness Assessment and Sports Injury Clinic gives athletes access to one of the country's top physio teams.
East Lothian's Education and Children's Services Convener, Peter MacKenzie, said: "PAiS demonstrates that targeting resources and partnership-working by schools, sports development officers, sporting bodies and sports resources can make a significant contribution to helping our young sportspeople to achieve their true potential."
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- A generic programme of fundamental skills for S1-3 athletes and a sport- specific programme for S4-6 athletes.
The age range of athletes participating in PAiS, which accepts pupils from S1-6, was too broad, warned the researchers.
Athletes were in danger of "premature sport-specific specialisation", they said. They recommended following the German model of developing sport performance, where basic skills are embedded and specialisation is delayed as long as possible.
- A more strategic approach to talent identification
The researchers felt that teachers, particularly PE teachers, could be more involved in the recruitment and selection of athletes and in their ongoing support. One teacher said a talented youngster was left out of the programme because he was injured: "This would not have happened if we had been consulted."
- Regular sessions with a mentor
These could be with coaches, although the researchers suggested a relationship be developed with Edinburgh University's PE teacher-training course, which would allow student teachers to take on this role.
- Strategic links to performance pathways of Scottish governing bodies in sport
PAiS was designed in conjunction with governing bodies but more precise details needed to be provided to athletes about how PAiS complemented and supported existing training routes, said the researchers.
- Strategic academic support
The provision of dedicated academic support is recommended as most athletes expressed concerns that their academic progress was compromised through their involvement in the PAiS programme.
- Parent support networks
These would help parents understand what makes a "good performance parent", said researchers. "If the athletes are to achieve their obvious potential, it is important that the scheme assists parents," they said.
- Quality assurance and athlete welfare
More explicit systems of quality assurance and enhancement would support the reputation and long-term sustainability of the PAiS programme.
- Original headline: Skills on the field lead to winning ways off it