Sports staff face marathon challenge

21st November 1997 at 00:00
John Cairney examines the tensions between curricular PE and extracurricular sport

Marr College, Troon, received a Sportsmark award earlier this year in recognition of its "high-quality managed sports programmes over a period of time". A quick look at the results list suggests Marr should order a few more display cabinets if the awards are made annually.

There have been individual and team successes at area level and the school has produced national winners or runners-up in hockey, basketball, orienteering and volleyball - at which it won three of the four national championships and was runner-up in the fourth.

Such a level of achievement did not come overnight for a comprehensive with a large roll and a wide range of abilities and social background. This year the physical education department embarked on Standard grade and staff are beginning to query whether they can sustain their after-school programme.

John Sharkey, who has taught at Marr for 24 years, warns: "The demands of Standard grade, Higher and all the other paperwork will lead me to draw back from after-school activities. I cannot do both."

Not all of the successes directly involve the PE staff - the basketball teams are taken by a business studies teacher - but it will leave an enormous gap if they remove themselves from the after-school programme. This session, the department has three Standard grade classes, next session there will be another three and then Higher Still to follow.

Many teachers in other schools will inevitably respond: "So what? We had to do it." Some may add: "Whether we wanted to or not." Some of these teachers are beginning to question the expectations the Government, local authorities and parents have in relation to physical education and sport.

Our Lady's High, Motherwell, did not receive any Sportsmark awards this year but, had they been available in the 1970s and early 1980s, the school would have been among the strongest contenders. During that period it offered an extensive extracurricular menu, including football, volleyball, athletics, gymnastics, dance, hillwalking and basketball, at which it won four national titles and had at least 12 pupils capped for Scotland.

As at Marr, some activities were taken by non-PE staff but it was the PE department that led by example.

At the same time as the drop-off in extracurricular activities after the teachers' dispute of the mid-eighties, Standard grade courses began to be introduced. Though Our Lady's was not selected as a piloting school, Jim Freel, principal teacher of PE, ran unofficial trials and was among the first to present pupils in 1990. He has been at the sharp end of other initiatives such as Scotvec modules and Higher PE, for which he was a course writer and is currently a moderator.

"During this period," he says, "teachers' energies and priorities were necessarily redirected from core and extracurricular activities to certificated courses. The academic path the subject has taken has resulted in a drop in the number of pupils involved in after-school sports and consequently in overall levels of performance."

He is now concerned at what he regards as the increasing expectations that PE staff should lead on school sports development at a time when departments are still reeling from the combined onslaught of Standard grade, Scotvec modules, Higher, Higher Still and 5-14.

Kay Cherrie, sports development co-ordinator in Glasgow, shares this view. Part of her remit is to establish sport as an integral part of education and as an extracurricular activity. She acknowledges a major obstacle is the increasingly theoretical nature of PE courses and the subsequent demands on staff.

Tony Szifris, principal teacher of PE at Portobello High, in Edinburgh, does not see a problem. "PE teachers should concentrate on core and certificate classes," he says and adds, perhaps mischievously, "and if they have enough time and don't burn themselves out, they can devote time to after-school sport."

At Portobello, he is currently taking part in the school sports co-ordinator pilot and is allowed off timetable for two days a week to work in the school and its immediate area. He also liaises with local clubs. Mr Szifris readily admits to foreseeing a time when school sport is taken solely by sports coaches and "appropriately trained and vetted volunteers".

Such a view may clash with that of Brian Wilson. The Education Minister praised the contribution of teachers when he addressed a sports conference in June. He gave a commitment to reverse the decline, saying that sport should be part of the overall educational experience with individual schools at the heart of the process. This seems a clear-cut and helpful statement of principle and displays a degree of ministerial interest which was sadly lacking in the eighties.

Perhaps the Government should take things a step further and form a group, with a healthy teachers' representation, to look at physical education, fitness and sport in schools.

Twenty years ago, physical education had to change. Is it now time to question whether young people have benefited? Ministers might like to ponder the sage of Marr, who when asked if extracurricular sport was only the icing on the cake, replied: "Aye, you might be right, bit it would be a gey dreich cake."

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