A few years ago, when I worked in education, I was privileged to visit schools the length and breadth of Scotland. Many were either new or had been significantly upgraded. As someone with a lifelong interest in sport, it was gratifying to see the top-class facilities that were part of nearly all the new builds and refurbishments. Many had been provided with floodlit aIl-weather surfaces. It was puzzling and disappointing though, to find many were seriously underused at breaks, lunchtimes and after school. I made a point of asking headteachers why pupils weren’t using the facilities when out of class. The most common answer was “Health and Safety” was preventing unsupervised use. I couldn’t help thinking back to my own school days when every square metre of playground was occupied by numerous needle matches. Dribbling skills developed as we evaded broken glass, protruding stones and worst of all, dog mess. The last of those ensured few of us developed the sliding tackle. Come to think of it, fewer of today’s professionals would have mastered the sliding celebration towards the nearest TV camera had they spent their formative years in our playground.
It should be a national priority to ensure those splendid and expensive facilities are used morning, noon and night. The importance of getting youngsters involved in sport from an early age is a no brainer. In 1997 when the Schools Sports’ Co-ordinator programme was being extended, deputy culture and sports minister Rhona Brankin stressed, “sport should be a fundamental part of school life” as, “school provides the perfect setting in which to provide opportunities for sport and physical activity”.
The Sports’ Co-ordinator programme paved the way for the Active Schools initiative, that aims to provide youngsters with opportunities for physical activity before and after school and at lunchtimes. Dundee’s Active School’s programme for example, sets out to get “more children, more active, more often”. The 2019 evaluation of the national programme made encouraging reading, reporting that over 300,000 youngsters had participated and 21,000 volunteers had helped out at some point. So far so good, we’ve got the facilities and adults are coming forward to coach and supervise. Yet, the excellent facilities and availability of qualified coaches isn’t bringing about the desired upsurge in participation that impacts significantly on health and wellbeing continuing into adult life.
Twenty years after Ms Brankin’s statement, The Royal College of Paediatricians and Child Health described the health of Scottish children as “amongst the worst” in Europe. In the same year The Scottish Health Survey revealed around 30 per cent of Scottish youngsters were overweight. It’s odds-on fat children become fat adults and few would have been surprised to learn that 65% of adult Scots are overweight. On a recent visit to Glasgow, there was a pervasive sense of poverty and ill health. My home town of Aberdeen is little better. In 2016, The Linlithgow Gazette reported we are even condemning our pets to unhealthy life styles due to diets that include chocolate and yes, alcohol.
It’s claimed that hosting major sporting events such as the Olympic and Commonwealth Games leaves a legacy of increased interest and participation in physical activity. The reality may be rather different. Evaluation of the 2012 London Olympics suggested that increased participation was short lived, concluding “a step change in participation levels has not occurred”. In the English context, selling off school playing fields and community facilities while talking up the “Olympic legacy” sent out a very mixed message. It was anticipated that one of the legacies of the 2014 Commonwealth Games held in Glasgow, would be greater physical activity achieved through new participants, the return of “lapsed” participants and the already physically active doing even more. While the Games were hugely successful, the 2018 evaluation concluded the evidence of increased participation arising from hosting major games is “inconclusive at best”.
The Games certainly provided the city with a number of excellent facilities such as the Sir Chris Hoy Velodrome and have attracted further major sporting events to the city. There was also a marked increase in the number of qualified coaches in a range of sports. The former athletes’ village provided housing within easy reach of quality sports facilities. Ironically, the legacy of the 2014 Games may well have widened the “health gap” between our most affluent and poorest communities. In truth, the only legacy that really counts is the extent to which there has been an enduring long-term increase in participation, impacting on the nation’s health and wellbeing. Unsurprisingly, Scotland doesn’t feature in any league table of countries with the most active and healthy populations. Japan tops nearly every measure of physical activity, health and life expectancy. The main reason may well be attitudinal. Oh, how we laughed at Japanese workers starting their day in factories and offices with 15 minutes of exercise. Who’s laughing now? That physical exercise and healthy living mindset is reflected in the large number of elderly Japanese who can be seen working out in Japanese parks. In contrast, there’s something in the Scottish psyche that believes it’s down to the medical profession and the Government to keep us healthy, irrespective of how we treat our bodies. It certainly won’t be easy or quick to change embedded negative attitudes towards exercise and health. Something long term like the anti-smoking campaign might get the ball rolling. Our poorest communities must be relentlessly targeted and they mustn’t be the first to lose their “uneconomic” sports facilities or they become too expensive for locals to access. What a legacy it would be if we could successfully address the attainment gap between schools in our most and least affluent areas and the health gap between the same communities.
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