Children denied access to after school sports clubs across Scotland

Children across Scotland are being denied access to extra-curricular sports activities as councils attempt to adhere to Sportscotland policy that says it should be free to all users.

In Edinburgh, a change in tack by the local authority to follow Sportscotland appears to have backfired in particular as its Active Schools programme has been dramatically reduced, leaving many children without access to any after school activities.

Across the rest of Scotland, extra-curricular sport operated through Active Schools is also running at a bare minimum in many areas, with some councils saying they are unable to restart clubs due to Covid restrictions.

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Jenny Litster, co-chair of the parent council at Stockbridge Primary in Edinburgh, said when her daughter returned to school after the summer break, she was surprised to find clubs she had previously enjoyed no longer being held.

Helen Nickerson says Edinburgh Council's policy has left her children's school with very few extra curricular activities. SOS - Parent case study for Active Schools - Helen Nickerson

She had previously liaised with Sportscotland's Active Schools programme to ensure the school had access to extracurricular sports activities.

Ms Litster said Active Schools has since told parent councils their options were now either to pay for coaches out of school funds, or find volunteers to run the classes, which were often previously staffed by professionals. A third option is for schools to bring in private companies to run sports clubs outwith the Active Schools banner, usually at a far higher cost to parents.

She said: “The Active Schools programme was an enormously popular way for children to try out a wide range of sports for a small fee, with free places always available to families who needed it. Children could take part in activities with their friends, regardless of their parents’ income.”

Before the pandemic, pupils had access to a full range of clubs after school, at a cost of just a couple of pounds per class. Children entitled to free school meals did not have to pay. Now, there are just three extra curricular classes on offer to children from the school – down from 17 – and none operating under the Active Schools banner.

“Yes, the small charge has been removed, but far from allowing the sports programme to be more inclusive, its stated aim, it does exactly the opposite as there is now far less funding to pay for coaches,” she said. “It just doesn’t seem like this policy was thought through.

"Families who can afford it are looking – and paying - elsewhere for their extra-curricular activities, and the children who this policy was supposed to help are left with a very limited choice or nothing. It’s not fair, and just widens the divide between children whose parents can afford to pay and those who can’t.”

It is understood while there was no formal announcement that councils had to stop charging parents for classes, Sportscotland is thought to have encouraged councils to make classes in the Active Schools programme free to users as far as possible this year in a bid to increase physical activity in children after months of lockdowns. Sports minister Maree Todd said in response to a written parliamentary question last month that the Scottish Government aimed to make Active Schools free for all by the end of this parliament.

Some councils have always run Active Schools through a team of volunteer coaches – often made up of young sports students looking for experience, as well as parents and school staff, while others have used a mixture of volunteers and paid coaches. Local authorities in some areas have topped up funding from SportScotland to make their sports programmes free to users for some time, however, others have charged families a small fee to cover costs – usually well below the equivalent costs for classes with a private, out-of-school provider.

Helen Nickerson, whose daughters attend Flora Stevenson Primary school in Edinburgh, said schools need to rely on parents to administer loopholes suggested to them to run any activities – while their children currently have access to a very limited number of activities.

She said: “When you work and your children are in other after school childcare, it is difficult to take them to sports clubs and the benefit of Active Schools is that it is wrapped around the school day. What is being lost is that simplicity of access. The idea is to make activities free, but for children who were getting free places anyway, there are now no clubs for them to go to."

She said the school has been offered a “work around” option from Active Schools, whereby the school can ask parents for a small “donation” to fund the clubs, but that the course is advertised as free through Active Schools.

“They’ve told us there could be some kind of work around, where we can charge something, but it has to be a donation. They’ve just made up some kind of loophole and it's very complicated and relies heavily on parents to work it out.”

Sportscotland pays £11.8 million a year towards Active Schools, with the cash distributed among Scotland’s 32 councils, but expects local authorities to match its contribution with their own funding, making up 40 per cent of the total cost. All councils employ Active School coordinators, who recruit volunteers or paid-for coaches to run activities.

In papers to be considered by The City of Edinburgh Council’s education committee on Tuesday, the local authority says in response to SportScotland’s request, it will now “focus on recruiting volunteers from parent groups, school staff, club coaches and senior pupils” rather than paid coaches. It also says Active Schools coordinators will "help” with administration such as letting school halls for schools to run paid-for classes by private providers.

It adds: “Active Schools coordinators, head teachers, parent teacher associations and clubs and coaches are required to find new ways of working that maintain and increase opportunities but without additional costs.”

A council spokesman said: “Sportscotland have said that Active Schools activity should be free which complements our approaches to poverty proof the school day and the council’s commitment to end poverty in Scotland’s capital city by 2030.

“We will provide an extra-curricular programme with no financial cost to families and our team will focus on recruiting volunteers to ensure a wide range of activities are offered.”

A spokesperson for Sportscotland said: “Active Schools provision should be free for all participants and we will continue to support our partners in all 32 local authority areas to ensure that is the case.

"We believe that sport and physical activity will play a central role in the nation’s long-term recovery from the pandemic and Active Schools programmes will be central to that.”

Many councils across Scotland said they have been unable to restart after school activities due to Covid restrictions preventing volunteers and Active Schools staff from entering schools – however, this is not the case in every area.

High Life Highland’s (HLH) head of sports development Mags Duncan said pre-pandemic, the council had a team of 1500 volunteers, but admitted fewer classes were now running.

She said: “Whilst still affected by the pandemic, HLH is offering extra-curricular activity where we have volunteers available and access to facilities.”

A Fife Council spokeswoman said while it had previously charged users a small fee for some activities, its Active School classes would be free from this academic year, in line with Sportscotland guidance. She said although the majority of coaches were volunteers, it would work to find “alternative funding” to pay for any activities that incurred a cost, without passing it on to pupils.

East Ayrshire Council said while all Active Schools activities are free, no activities were currently running due to Covid restrictions – and it planned to start up classes after the October break, once it had recruited a “volunteer base”.

Meanwhile, East Lothian Council said it was working through the “implications” of SportScotland’s aim of making classes free – although is currently still charging a small fee for some courses.

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A Renfrewshire Council spokesperson said the council does not charge for Active Schools activities, with classes part funded by Renfrewshire Council, Sportscotland, Renfrewshire Leisure Limited and external grant funding.

He said: “The number of activities per week varies per school and is based on the number of volunteers currently available. We continue to re-engage our volunteer base now that external visitors to schools are allowed, and to expand the number of activities on offer.”

A spokesperson for North Ayrshire Council said a “full programme” was running in North Ayrshire, within the context of Covid guidance and risk assessments, while Western Isles Council said only clubs run by school staff as an extension of the school day have been allowed so far due to Covid regulations.

North Lanarkshire Council last year mooted the idea of cutting funding support for Active Schools, but made a u-turn after an outcry from parents.

Edinburgh Western MSP and Scottish Liberal Democrat health spokesperson Alex Cole-Hamilton said: "It's so important to get young people active after the pandemic robbed them of so many opportunities. No wonder parents are worried. We need to be making it easier for young people to get involved in sports, not more difficult."

Scottish Conservative MSP Brian Whittle added: “Every effort must be made to rebuild from the pandemic as a healthier and fitter nation. It is incredibly disappointing that the Active Schools programme is not up and running in many schools. Sporting activities should be free wherever possible, in order to ensure access for young people is as easy as possible.”

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