The Government's stress on competitive team games discriminates against girls, who are taking less and less exercise and will grow up to become inactive and unhealthy.
Neil Armstrong, professor of health and exercise sciences at Exeter University, told the BAAS conference that the academic parts of the national curriculum were increasingly absorbing the time that should be devoted to physical education. And the emphasis on team games was deterring many girls, who often preferred activities such as aerobics, swimming or dancing.
British schoolchildren were relatively fit judged by the key criterion of aerobic (or cardiovascular) fitness, Professor Armstrong said. Contrary to public belief, their fitness had not deteriorated over the last 50 years.
But he warned that they were becoming less and less active, and that girls' physical activity declined markedly in their teenage years. This meant problems for the future, because inactive adults faced all sorts of health risks.
A recent study at the Exeter Children's Health and Exercise Research Centre had shown that nearly half of the secondary schoolgirls and nearly 40 per cent of the boys did not even experience the equivalent of a 10-minute brisk walk during three normal schooldays. On a Saturday, more than 90 per cent of girls and 70 per cent of boys did not experience the equivalent of a 10-minute brisk walk.
While it was not clear if television, video and computer games had meant children took less physical exercise, the effect of parental example and encouragement was clearly significant. Because exercise and sport had been sex-stereotyped as masculine, boys tended to receive more encouragement to take exercise than girls.
Professor Armstrong lamented the growing tendency of parents to drive children to school (four times as many in 1990 as in 1970) and pointed out that girls were allowed less independence than boys. For example, 30 per cent of boys who owned bicycles were allowed to use them after dark, compared with only 10 per cent of girls.
The Prime Minister had told last year's Conservative party conference that schools should offer at least two hours a week for sport and physical education. But the recent Office for Population Censuses and SurveysSports Council survey had shown that less than half of 6 to 16-year-olds had two hours a week of physical education. Since 1987, the number of 14-year-olds who did not receive two hours a week of physical education had nearly doubled. Secondary heads blamed the implementation of the national curriculum for the decrease.
As for the content of national curriculum physical education, politicians appeared convinced of the value of competitive team games in "building character", despite the lack of any evidence to support the premise.
"It appears that there is little understanding among politicians of the need for a balanced physical education curriculum and the promotion of physical activities which are likely to be sustained into adult life," Professor Armstrong said.
The OPCSSports Council survey had confirmed not only the dominance of the curriculum by competitive team games but also the reluctance of girls to participate in such games outside school. The dominance of team games, with their male-defined standards, in the PE curriculum and social life of the school could reinforce pejorative messages about the relative unimportance of female athletic interests.
Girls' dislike of team games should not be confused with inability or lack of interest in physical activity, he said. While girls who liked team games should be given every opportunity to fulfil their potential, schools should make it clear that competition and athletic excellence were not necessary for the promotion of health. Children should be exposed to a wide variety of individual, partner and team activities, thus laying the foundations for enjoying exercise in both the present and the future.
A note of warning about intensive physical training for children and adolescents was sounded by Dr Joanne Welsman, also of the University of Exeter.
The late onset of menstruation typical of many girls who did ballet and gymnastics did not appear to affect their later ability to have children. But the menstrual disturbances experienced by many adolescent athletes did have serious implications for future well-being, specifically bone health and osteoporosis.
Dr Welsman also drew attention to the danger to young athletes from repetitive stress on growing and vulnerable joints, muscles and bones, which could cause problems such as shin splints and stress fractures. Overtraining or "burn-out" was also becoming more common, she said.