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Young fencers foiled for choice

As Scottish Fencing looks to gain ground in state schools, a primary coaching initiative in Dunfermline is showing the way in, reports Roddy Mackenzie

Fencing has been strongly linked with private schools but there are determined efforts to broaden its schools base to preserve its place in Scotland.

Ken Rose, a coach at West Fife Fencing Club, believes that fencing needs to be tried in state schools more and he has been practising what he preaches by coaching in primary schools in the Dunfermline area, which is now earning a reputation as something of a fencing stronghold.

The strategy is to target youngsters from as early an age as possible in an attempt to get them hooked on the sport so that by the time they go to secondary school they are keen to take it to a more competitive level.

Scotland has fared well in international fencing over the past 30 years and produced top-level fencers such as Donnie McKenzie and Georgina Usher, but much of their success has been because of the individuals' own determination to succeed rather than any structured framework for them to follow.

Mr Rose teaches fencing at five primary schools every week and takes classes in the Easter and summer holidays. Between eight and 10 schools take part in these.

"We've tried to concentrate on children under 14 in the hope that we could make a broader base to build upon," he explains.

"In the past, I think fencing has suffered from the coaches being spread too thinly. There was maybe one fencing coach in one town and another in another town. What we are trying to do in Dunfermline is have a concentration of coaches and build up a reputation for fencing in the area.

"We've tried to get classes going in primary schools, as opposed to secondary schools, to stimulate the interest and it has worked."

Plastic weapons are available for young children but, while Mr Rose acknowledges that these can be good learning tools, he believes children want to learn with the real thing.

"The children think there is nothing to beat the sound of metal blades clashing against each other," he says. "I tend to use real weapons, although the children start with smaller blades and smaller grips."

They also wear masks and protective clothing.

"I've not had any complaints about the sport being dangerous for children," says Mr Rose, "and the primary schools I work in are very keen to fence. There are occasional parents who are concerned about the safety aspects but it is all disciplined and controlled and they are soon put at ease.

"If children want to take the sport on from school, they can learn more at fencing clubs. There is only so much anyone can learn in an hour a week and that would not be enough for them to go on and do well in competitions."

Mr Rose estimates that it costs around pound;300 to kit out a child in clothing and equipment for competition. While this may seem expensive, he does not believe it is excessive compared to other sports. Buying football strips and boots these days can leave little change from pound;100, he says.

Thanks to funding from Sportscotland, there are now junior excellence and junior elite programmes as stepladders to help young fencers reach their full potential.

Scottish youngsters have done well in recent competitions. Claire Thomson, of St Leonard's Primary in Dunfermline, was third in the British Under-10 Fencing Championships, and all three members of the under-17 British team at the world championships were Scots.

Scottish Fencing, the sport's governing body, would like to see the Dunfermline project replicated throughout the country, but development officer Ian Stewart acknowledges that getting the sport into secondary schools is going to be difficult.

"There was an initiative about two years ago to try to get fencing into more schools but very few schools do sport after hours and there is a problem getting fencing on the curriculum," he says.

In a bid to get more youngsters competing, the governing body introduced the 5 Series - five competitions throughout the season for under-12s and under-14s - a couple of years ago and it has helped to create more competition for schools fencers. Girls are now able to compete with all three weapons, using the sabre as well as the foil and epee, and there is an increased demand to organise competitions.

However, Scotland's best young fencers still need to go to England or even abroad for the necessary competitive experience to excel.

"We have a lot of good youngsters coming through the schools," says Mr Stewart. "Edinburgh has traditionally been very strong but there are other areas of the country which are producing fencers. The Highland Fencing School is very strong and we have some good young fencers based in Dingwall. We also see some very good schoolchildren coming through in Orkney and Shetland; we just don't see them often enough at competitions due to the travelling involved.

"My one concern is that there are a lot of coaches out there working independently. The governing body would like to bring them all together under a single framework, but that is a huge job and it could take a few years before something is in place."

Scottish Fencing would also like to see an academy for elite fencers, similar to ones in England and abroad. There are around 500 academies in France. One purpose-built facility in Scotland is seen as the way to take the sport to another plain.

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