Winner's cup or wooden spoon for sports facilities?

16th August 2013 at 01:00
With running tracks, dance studios and fitness suites galore, SportScotland's survey of schools found bags of high-tech facilities - but not enough people using them

In May 2012, TESS revealed that the first national audit of school sports facilities was about to begin. Now, after 15 months of intensive work by SportScotland, the findings can be shared with readers.

Much of the picture painted is encouraging: the usual all-purpose halls and pitches are increasingly complemented by a healthy scattering of fitness suites and dance studios; many attest that Scotland's young people have never had access to such a wealth of facilities. And these are, by and large, being thrown open after school hours to students and their communities.

But there is another, less upbeat side to the story: even when they are open outside the school day, Scottish schools' sports facilities spend most of their time lying empty.

Nearly 2,100 state schools (out of the country's 2,500) took part in the audit. Between them they boast 183 fitness suites, 156 outdoor running tracks, 116 dance studios and 106 swimming pools - not to mention thousands of games halls and outdoor pitches. On the whole, these are in good condition, although feedback from local authorities suggests that the state of secondary schools' facilities is considerably better than those of primaries.

Some 98 per cent of facilities in 329 secondaries are available for use outside school hours, and 79 per cent of those in 1,751 primaries. But in terms of actual use the picture can, at best, be described as mixed.

The Scottish government and SportScotland highlight the fact that secondary schools' indoor facilities are in use 61 per cent of the time they are available during term time. But pick out any other statistic and the figure drops markedly. In the worst case, primary schools' outdoor facilities are in use only 4.8 per cent of the time they are available during holidays.

In a country where teenage participation in sport is low in international terms - more than half of girls aged 12-15 do not reach recommended physical activity levels - such figures are particularly stark.

Stewart Harris, SportScotland's chief executive, is "extremely encouraged" by the variety of facilities and the extent to which facilities stay open after school; Commonwealth Games and sport minister Shona Robison declares this "excellent news". But both acknowledge that it is not the full story. Indeed, the minister concedes that "there is certainly room for improvement in the overall use of the school estate".

Don Ledingham, who has just departed as a long-serving education chief in East Lothian, and latterly Midlothian, having started his career as a physical education teacher, says that public-private partnerships (PPPs) have played a big role in making schools better equipped for sport. Some 40 per cent of secondaries are the result of some form of private investment, the audit states, against only 6 per cent of primaries.

"PPP does come in for some criticism, but it has led to enhanced and improved facilities and - very importantly - comes with a guarantee of maintenance," he says.

Missing the goal

But gleaming gyms and sparkling fitness suites offer less to boast about if few people use them. One senior PE teacher, who asked not to be named, told TESS: "It saddens me to see brand-new schools, superb facilities and nothing happening after normal hours - what a waste."

Elinor Steel, a principal PE teacher who represents North Lanarkshire in the Scottish Association of Teachers of Physical Education, says: "It would be great if there was more use of all school facilities, not just PE, but no one seems to want to take responsibility for issues such as maintenance, wear and tear and so on."

Cumbersome booking processes may not help, either. Only 9 per cent of primary schools offer online booking, and 8 per cent of secondaries.

The low usage after school does not surprise Theresa Campbell, senior teacher in primary PE at the University of Glasgow and co-director of the Scottish Primary Physical Education Project. Whereas schools tend to think about physical activity as well as sport, after-school usage - whether by school clubs or by the wider local community - is less varied. Football remains by far the most popular physical activity in schools at evenings and weekends, accounting for 16.6 per cent of all use.

"We need to broaden what after-school activities there are in some way - in the way that we have made huge strides in broadening the curriculum," Campbell says.

More needs to be done to give primary teachers the confidence to run sports clubs, she adds, observing that they "often believe they don't have something to offer".

Many agree that a change of culture is needed in Scotland; that sport does not permeate life beyond school as it should. A number of commentators have questioned the national target of two hours of PE per week in primary schools (two periods in secondaries), insisting that targets that extend beyond the school day would make more sense. Steel points to the Netherlands, where there are strong links between schools, sports clubs and communities. Campbell cites Australia and New Zealand, where many young people roll out of bed to play sport before school.

Change is in the air: SportScotland's corporate plan for 2011-15 makes opening up the school estate a priority. Harris highlights the national target of 150 "sports hubs" - places where the community organises usage, rather than a distant central body - by 2016, at least half to be based in schools.

Ledingham approves: "Having seen the development of the community hub concept in Midlothian at Lasswade High, I agree there are huge opportunities to transform the way in which communities access schools' facilities, and not just for sport."

But budget cuts are expected to prove a stern test of local authorities' commitment to sport and the progress that has been made in opening up facilities.

"Local authorities are going to be facing some very challenging times over the next few years in terms of budgets and this will lead to some difficult options having to be considered, which will directly cut across community access to schools," Ledingham says.

Closing schools at the end of classes would allow savings on janitorial services and heating, he says. Sports and leisure staff could also prove vulnerable, and charges may have to increase.

But Harris underlines SportScotland's commitment to "developing a world- class sporting structure at all levels", and "significant progress" in joining the dots between sport at school and sport beyond school.

The picture that emerges from this audit is that Scottish schools have a growing array of sports facilities - and a growing determination to see them used as widely as possible.

The full audit is available at

Estate management

Sports facilities in the Scottish school estate include:

  • 183 fitness suites
  • 116 dance studios
  • 621 multi-use outdoor fitness areas
  • 188 outdoor basketball courts
  • 2,000 outdoor pitches
  • 106 swimming pools

      The achievement of state-educated Andy Murray in winning the Wimbledon tennis championship this year, becoming the first British man to take the singles title in 77 years, is difficult to overstate.

      Scotland has little tradition in tennis and a paucity of courts reflects that. Traditionally, the sport has largely been the preserve of expensive clubs, with municipal courts often in disrepair and school courts almost unheard of.

      When TESS reported in 2010 on a tennis scheme being launched at a primary school in Glasgow's East End, the headteacher said that Murray was the favourite sportsman of every one of her 209 children - yet she knew of not one who had ever picked up a racket, and there was no court for miles.

      One of the most striking statistics in the first national audit of school sports facilities is the number of outdoor tennis courts: only 104 shared among 2,100 state schools. When TESS asked the Scottish Council of Independent Schools how many courts its members had, no overall figure was available, but a stark contrast was nevertheless clear: Strathallan School in Perthshire alone has 18 hard courts. The Tennis Academy Scotland, which schools students from Edinburgh's Merchiston Castle School and another independent school in the city, St George's, bases its training on Merchiston's three hard courts.

      Days after Murray beat Novak Djokovic in straight sets at Wimbledon, the government announced a four-year plan "to capitalise on Murray-mania in Scotland". Government agency SportScotland is investing pound;5.8 million to improve facilities and make the sport more accessible.

      The money will also go towards boosting the regional development team at Tennis Scotland, in an attempt to forge closer links between schools and places where tennis is played.

      Photo credit: Getty

      Original headline: Is it the winner's cup or wooden spoon for school sports facilities?


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