Scotland could learn from Germany's approach to sport, particularly its strong club framework. Roddy Mackenzie reports on West Lothian's hopes for links
New links with Germany are set to give children in Scotland a much needed sports boost. West Lothian council is looking at developing formal sporting bonds with Hochsauerland, the high country of North Rhine-Westphalia.
One proposal is to send over West Lothian pupils and invite German children here to take part in competitions over the next year. There are already arts links between the two regions and sport seems a natural next step.
A delegation from the council and SportScotland visited the area in north-western Germany in June with a view to setting up mutually beneficial ties. Now the arrangement has taken a more formal step with a plan approved by the council's children's services and lifelong learning committee.
West Lothian pupils could dip their toes in the water as early as next June, as there is an open invitation for a swimming club or group of swimmers to compete in an event in Hochsauerland. It would be the first time children from West Lothian have attended a sporting event in Germany as a formal group.
It could eventually lead to pupils from both areas competing in various sports on a regular basis.
Charlie Raeburn, the sport and physical activity manager for West Lothian Council, believes that establishing a sporting link with the German region would be hugely beneficial. Scotland could learn a lot from the German approach to sport, particularly its strong club framework which supports its youth sport.
"It (Hochsauerland) is a semi-rural area with a population of 260,000 compared to 160,000 in West Lothian. Participation levels in sport are enormous, with more than 40 per cent of the population being members of sports clubs," he explains. "Imagine if we could boast similar figures in Scotland. What a difference it would make."
One of the main strengths of the Hochsauerland is the number of Nordic walking clubs, which involve men, women and children regularly walking with ski-poles. Such exercise helps to develop upper-body strength as well as using the leg muscles.
Whether it would catch on in West Lothian remains to be seen, but community sports clubs are something that the council is keen to explore.
In Hochsauerland, junior members of clubs get access to facilities free of charge and this undoubtedly helps to get them involved in sport at an early age.
The study group from West Lothian Council looked at club development and the coach education programme being delivered and found an element of involvement from the corporate sector, with advice to clubs on such matters as their financial management.
West Lothian is promoting community football clubs and encouraging them to develop an infrastructure where members also deal with the coaching and administration and look at developing their own players.
"We want to get away from what the Danes call telephone teams," says Mr Raeburn. "That is when you ring around people every week to get a team together to play on a Saturday.
"We want to look at sport for life, as adult participation is often overlooked and we want to encourage more active lifestyles."
It is now hoped that the local sports council in Hochsauerland will visit West Lothian to investigate ways of developing links.
The council study group has studied the systems in place in Hochsauerland and the wider area of North Rhine-Westphalia.
"In many ways, they are so far ahead of us in their attitudes to sport," Mr Raeburn says.
"It's hard to say what they could learn from us but maybe something in terms of the public-private partnerships or the Active Schools programme.
We have a culture of school sport that they do not have as they are based around clubs.
"The Germans are also looking to develop after-school clubs, as they have a similar situation to here, where children are going home from school to empty homes.
"We are also looking at the possibility of twinning schools, as travel to Europe is cheap.
"There's a huge challenge in front of us but we hope to get this off the ground and set up more formal links."
The Scottish Executive signed an agreement with North Rhine-Westphalia last January to develop a partnership in a range of environmental and cultural activities and this could help open doors for West Lothian.
The council clearly feels that sport should not be left out of the equation and will step up its efforts in the months ahead.