Thrill of the chase

9th June 2006 at 01:00
Orienteering is taking off in schools. Even young pupils are rising to the challenge of map-reading while running. Roddy Mackenzie reports

The Scottish Schools' Orienteering Association is plotting its most ambitious course yet. After staging the 11th schools' festival in the grounds of Scone Palace, Perth, last week, thoughts are now turning to hosting the next World Schools' Championships in Edinburgh in 2008.

Orienteering is still finding its way in Scotland's sporting landscape but is constantly seeking new ground. Scotland performed well at the last world event at Pezinok, Slovakia, in April, when the team - featuring pupils from Biggar High, Jedburgh Grammar, Lanark Grammar, Currie High and Douglas Academy - finished fourth. Biggar High finished 10th in the individual schools' race.

For a sport that is traditionally dominated by Scandinavian countries, there was some British success with one of the English team - Julia Blomquist from Charters School in Ascot, Berkshire - winning an individual gold medal.

"The Scottish team did very well," says Blair Young, the head of PE at Biggar High and secretary of the association. "To finish fourth behind Sweden, Latvia and England was a tremendous achievement. We have a strong group at aged 14 to 15.

"There were 20 countries competing in Slovakia and we expect roughly the same number in Edinburgh in 2008, although there may be some Commonwealth countries such as Australia that will be keen to come if the event is in Scotland. Our main problem at the moment is finding 500 beds in the city."

Schools' orienteering is still "patchy" in Scotland, according to Mr Young, but is particularly strong in the Highlands.

Perth and Kinross has a strong primary network, which is why last week's schools' festival was held in Scone. Last year it was at Pollok Country Park in Glasgow.

Bearsden, in East Dunbartonshire, has also come on to the map with its three secondary schools - Douglas Academy, Bearsden Academy and Boclair Academy - regularly staging inter-school races.

Mr Young's own school, in South Lanarkshire, not only has orienteering on its curriculum, it also has courses with varying degrees of difficulty mapped out around the surrounding area.

Mr Young argues that orienteering is an ideal sport for pupils because it exercises the legs and the brain. "It crosses the boundaries of subjects and takes in PE, geography, maths and even home economics," he says.

"At Biggar High, we run it through the PE department, but in some other schools it is the geography department.

"It's great for self-confidence. Pupils can compete in pairs but you find that the older they get, the more individuals take part.

"It is not the case of the fastest runner being best at it, as there are other skills involved as well. That is why you find that some pupils who have not quite made their mark in athletics can be successful at orienteering.

"The sport has loads of potential and it's just a case of spreading the word and getting more schools to take it up."

Biggar High has just hosted a development course for 22 teachers from North Lanarkshire for six hours over three Wednesday evenings: which means 22 more staff qualified to oversee the sport.

"It's not an onerous task to do the basic teachers' course and the more we can get through it the better," says Mr Young.

"It's not an expensive sport in terms of equipment and you don't even need a compass to start out. As long as you have a black and white site map - which can be easily obtained now - that is sufficient, and it's how most of us started out."

Although the season runs from May to October, skills such as map-reading can be practised in class at any time.

The British Schools' Championships are held every November. Scotland staged the event about 10 years ago, but a decision was taken to centralise it to make travel easier. This year's event will be in the West Midlands.

"When it was decided to centralise the championship, it meant centralising it in England," explains Mr Young. That is one reason Scotland is keen to take on board the World Schools' Championships, because it would provide a focal point for the sport and give it a platform it has not enjoyed before at school level.

One of the problems facing schools orienteering is cramming it into a crowded summer term alongside a busy athletics programme. Many of the leading schools' orienteers take part in athletics. Rosie Campbell, a pupil at Biggar High, is a schools' cross country international.

"It is always tight trying to squeeze orienteering into the summer term,"

Mr Young explains. "A lot of our good orienteers are also good athletes and take part in the Scottish schools' athletics championships in June."

The orienteering festival at Scone Palace attracted 50 schools, all with some experience of the sport. However, there are still concerns that it is the club orienteers who come to the fore at the annual event and the spread of finish times can be too great. Races were staged for girls and boys in P5-P6 (over a distance of 1.8km) up to S5-S6 (3.8km).

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