They're sloping off to the Alps

6th April 2007 at 01:00
A gruelling training schedule does not impede the academic progress of British Ski Academy pupils

THEY ARE the envy of all their friends - pupils who fly off to spend winter in the French Alps chasing their dreams of becoming top international ski racers.

Now though, after a hard morning's skiing, the pace has slowed and everyone seems to have their nose stuck in a book. Skiwear's been swapped for well-worn jeans and T-shirts and the atmosphere in this alpine chalet hotel is library quiet.

The British Ski Academy at Les Houches in the Chamonix Valley is the winter training base for some of the country's most promising young skiers.

Youngsters from schools throughout the UK come here for alpine ski race coaching in the mornings, while afternoons are set aside for study on work set by their teachers back home.

With snow often scarce at Scotland's ski centres, a two-and-a-half-hour flight to Geneva with one of the cheap no-frills airlines takes Scottish pupils to within easy reach of Europe's alpine ski destinations. Among the team of top ski race coaches is Scots head coach Ross Green, who came 15th in the Olympics in 2002.

And with a team of qualified primary and secondary teachers tutoring most subjects on the curriculum, the BSA's headquarters at Hotel Etoile des Neiges answers skiers' prayers and strives to keep parents and teachers happy too.

The centre's founder and director is Malcolm Erskine, a member of the British Ski Team in the 1980s, who describes his role here as coach and house parent. Dressed in a Norwegian woollen sweater he looks every inch the house dad, fending off swarming children.

"What is going on? You've had your lunch," he reminds three eight-year-old boys hovering round a fruit bowl. "Boys, can you go upstairs and do something quiet up there? Do something constructive," he adds hopefully.

The trio scatter and Mr Erskine explains what the BSA is about: "We do not take year-round responsibility for the children's education, just the blocks where they come out with their school work."

Skiers can live in or live out and are broadly 10 to 15 years old. They have three hours of tutorials six afternoons a week and rise at 7.15am to prepare for daily fitness and ski race training.

"The mission statement is that children should return to school up to or ahead of their class. And by and large, that happens," says Mr Erskine.

Youngsters come here for anything from two to 10 weeks with one thing in common - a shared passion for ski racing. "The older 13 to 14-year-olds may be thinking about getting onto the Olympic team in years to come, but the immediate goals are making the British Children's Ski Team, representing the country and winning races at national level."

The academic tutors are teachers here on secondment for a season from jobs in the UK. There are 24 staff, including tutors, ski coaches, house parents and a hotel cooks, cleaners, drivers and maintenance workers.

A winter term of 12 weeks will set parents back pound;6,000, and those at fee-paying schools in the UK will still have to stump up for those fees while their children are in France. This is not a venture for the financially faint-hearted.

"I hope they appreciate the sacrifices and what's going in from the parents," says Mr Erskine. "If you want to race as an 11 to 14-year-old, with 16 to 20 weeks on snow and all the equipment, you're looking at pound;10,000 a year."

Mr Erskine estimates the skiers usually split about 50-50 between state and fee-paying schools. Talented young skiers from the Highlands and islands of Scotland can benefit from the Rannoch Trust, set up to fund several youngsters over a five-year period.

Mathilda Reekie, 13, is from Laurencekirk in Aberdeenshire. After she finishes her ski training, she'll be off to a school in Toulouse to improve her French. Her ambition is to win a place in the Scottish team: "You have to work hard to be a good skier and you have to really, really want it."

Tutors here are paid around pound;120 a week, and as well as board and lodgings, they get assistance with travel costs and the chance to ski every morning before tutorials.

English tutor Josh Greenland is a supply teacher in the UK who has been getting ski lessons from his own students: "The kids are so motivated. They are driven with the skiing and because they are focused they know it's a two-way street, they've got to work hard as well."

* www.britskiacad.org.uk

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