The race against time to get Scotland moving

6th May 2016 at 00:00
Academics say there’s a long way to go on changing attitudes to sport and physical activity, reports Henry Hepburn – but education is leading the charge

Scotland has a peculiar, paradoxical relationship with sport and the outdoors. Football, for example, is a national obsession, yet there is a stubborn myopia about all other sports. At a time when Andy Murray – perhaps Scotland’s greatest-ever sports star – is at his peak, it’s still common for his progress in big tournaments to be relegated to the centre of newspapers’ sports sections, while the back pages are dominated by Celtic and Rangers tittle-tattle.

And consider that Scotland boasts some of Europe’s last wildernesses, and countless spots for trekking, climbing, sailing and winter sports. And yet we do not have the outdoorsy culture of other countries, such as Norway, where families typically own a country retreat that they travel to at weekends in order to escape the urban grind.

Legacy squandered?

The 2014 Glasgow Commonwealth Games fuelled a promise that sport in Scotland would be rebooted – certainly, its legacy plans focused on grassroots change and seemed more persuasive than the top-down approach of the 2012 London Olympics.

But there’s still a complacency and municipal sniffiness that hangs about sport, epitomised by the proliferation of “no ball games” signs and, even after Andy Murray’s historic Wimbledon triumph, run-down tennis courts.

In 2013, TESS revealed the findings of a SportScotland audit of schools’ sport facilities, showing that they were often as quiet as a post-gold rush frontier town. The most damning statistic related to primary schools’ outdoor facilities, which were used for only 4.8 per cent of the available time in the holidays. It’s a far cry from nations like Sweden, where most families belong to multi-sports clubs and there are seamless links between school and community sport.

Education is key to changing all this. But how is it doing? Certainly, PE, sport and outdoor education now enjoy unprecedented prominence in the Scottish curriculum, and health and wellbeing is firmly established as a central pillar of learning.

Yet in the lead-up to the Holyrood elections, the University of Edinburgh sent 12 briefings on various aspects of education to every candidate (, which show that much remains to be done.

The subjects covered include sport, poverty and education; physical activity and physical education; and outdoor learning. The first of these is a sharp rejoinder to complacency: while sport’s benefits are widely accepted, says its author Professor Grant Jarvie, “the contribution of sport to both formal and informal education is not well understood today in Scotland”.

Winning team

Given all the political handwringing about the attainment gap between rich and poor, there may be no better time for sport to join forces with education. According to Jarvie, together they forge “a critical tool in tackling social and economic disadvantage”. Sport, the evidence shows, can propel children to great things, often against the odds, (see box, below), but this must start from as early an age as possible.

“Education-through-sport initiatives are proven to boost educational capability, confidence, mental health and other learning skills that help not just education but working and social lives,” says Jarvie, who is chair of sport at the Moray House School of Education.

But he questions whether the political will is there and urges MSPs to look to Unesco, which in 2015 demanded that international policymakers invest more in combining sport and education. And to great leaders such as Nelson Mandela, who in 2000 said: “Sport has the power to change the world…and create hope where there was once despair.”

Jarvie calls for daily PE lessons – the Scottish government more modestly sets a target of two hours a week in primary schools and two periods a week in S1-4 – and a transformation in the signals sent to children outside school by, for example, “no ball games” signs and community schemes to establish car-free streets being scuppered by a lack of money.

The outdoor learning briefing tells a similar tale: while Scottish education is alive to its benefits – more so than the rest of the UK and many other countries – in practice “the quality and quantity of outdoor learning continue to be very limited, particularly within schools in disadvantaged areas”.

Schools still often “actively favour a theory-based approach [to learning] rather than practical work”, says the briefing’s author Peter Higgins, professor of outdoor and environmental education. And school grounds – even on newly built sites – are “frequently less than ideal to encourage teachers to use them for educational purposes”.

Meanwhile, residential outdoor learning is left to commercial organisations and charitable trusts, with few education professionals involved, and school inspectors have not done enough to encourage teachers to develop outdoor learning.

The third briefing, covering physical activity and PE, flags up that, despite some improvement, teenage girls continue to lag behind boys and younger girls in physical activity levels (see table, page 19).

Author Professor Nanette Mutrie, chair in physical activity for health, calls for educational approaches that target certain groups, including adolescent girls and disabled pupils – the latter being “often the most sedentary children, in and out of school, putting them at further health risks”.

She highlights the success of the university’s Race Running scheme for children with disabilities, an endeavour with the International Paralympic Committee, Scottish Disability Sport and the Cerebral Palsy International Sport and Recreation Association.

The initiative, started in 1991 in Denmark, helps children who have severe physical impairments to leave their wheelchairs and run on an athletics track. They are able to do this with the help of a custom-built tricycle without pedals that aids with balance.

High impact

Some figures in Scottish education, however, call into question whether the overall picture is as discouraging as the briefings make out.

Maureen McKenna, president of education directors’ body ADES, recently chaired a major conference on sport and education. Until a few years ago, she says, any talk about the benefits of sport in schools referred largely to extracurricular clubs; now, it has “a much wider impact”.

This has been seen in the rise of “schools of sport”: mainstream secondaries that strive to improve attendance and raise attainment by becoming specialists in basketball, rugby, dance and football.

Karen McCubbin, general secretary of the Scottish Association of Teachers of Physical Education (SATPE), is optimistic about the subject’s future.

PE has become more established in the curriculum as it has developed a more sophisticated approach: it is no longer simply about teachers transmitting skills such as “how to hold a hockey stick, pass a ball or do a cartwheel”, Ms McCubbin says.

She adds that PE, which is gaining popularity at Higher (see table, above), has become “much more about collaboration, a two-way process between the teacher and the learner” where pupils hone skills, such as leadership and teamwork, applicable in all areas of life.

So far, so good. Progress is being made. But is it enough to solve the paradox of Scotland’s relationship with exercise? Time will tell.


Preventing gang violence

Fewer young people are at risk of death or imprisonment as a result of gang-related violence when sport gains prominence in schools, a major education event heard in March.

Former gang member Mark Gallacher, 25, said that it was “easier to get a knife than a tennis racquet” when he was a pupil, and that becoming a sports coach had helped him to turn his life around.

“I don’t know where I would be if I didn’t pursue the path I’m on,” added Mr Gallacher, who sits on the Young People’s Sports Panel for SportScotland.

But attitudes to sport in Scottish schools had improved dramatically in recent years, he told the Raising Attainment and Achievement Through Sport conference in Edinburgh.

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