FACILITIES for sport in many primary schools are little better than those of a banana republic, according to a hard-hitting report from headteachers.
Substandard amenities and pressure on curriculum time for physical education are breeding a generation of young couch potatoes, says the study.
Primary schools are having to share often poorly maintained playing fields, and more than half of them ask parents to pay for swimming lessons and transport to public pools.
Meanwhile, the demands of the national curriculum and other education initiatives are cutting into the time available for sports and PE lessons.
This bleak picture emerges from a survey of 2,126 schools carried out by the National Association of Head Teachers. David Hart, NAHT general secretary, said: "It is nothing short of a scandal that, as we rapidly approach the millennium, PE and sports facilities in too many schools are not much better than those in a banana republic.
"The fitness levels of a significant number of youngsters and their sedentary lifestyle are already a cause for grave concern. If the Government can be thoroughly focused on academic standards, it can also give priority to PE and sport in schools.
"Unless it is prepared to push this issue to the top of the political agenda, we will see this country's youngsters turn into a generation of couch potatoes."
A fifth of secondary schools and more than 40 per cent of primaries said PE provision had decreased significantly in the past two years - with large minorities blaming the demands of the national curriculum and other education initiatives for the decline.
Eighty per cent of all schools had to pay to use public swimming pools, and more than half turned to parents to fund lessons and transport.
The survey, perhaps predictably, found that most primary schools have no gym, swimming pool or tennis court, relying instead on multi-purpose school halls and playgrounds.
A quarter of schools said that hall time available for sport or PE was less than adequate, while more than half have to share their playing fields with others.
A significant minority of all schools - primary, secondary and special - report problems with upkeep, maintenance, drainage and surface condition of their playing fields.
In most cases, money for upkeep of grounds has to come from schools' budgets. Little support is received for improving facilities from the National Lottery, sports councils or other sources, says the survey.
A spokesman for Sport England (formerly the English Sports Council) said 179 awards, totalling pound;70 million, had been made to schools in the four years since the Lottery Sports Fund began - around 10 per cent of the total money available.
Many more schools will have benefited from other local projects spearheaded by local authorities or community groups, he added.