Governments across Europe are putting pressure on schools to counter soaring obesity levels among young people by overhauling their physical education provision, according to the first pan-European study of its kind.
Demands are being placed on schools to improve the quality of sporting opportunities on offer and increase the amount of time dedicated to physical education (PE). Several countries are introducing more physical activity to the daily routine, including intensive bursts of exercise during breaks and sports clubs before the school day begins, a European Commission study found.
The amount of sport on offer varies widely: during the 2011-12 school year, the recommended minimum time for children aged 5-11 ranged from just 37 hours in the Republic of Ireland to 108 hours in France. Generally, schools offered between 50 and 80 hours of PE a year, which is less than 10 per cent of total lesson time and about half the time devoted to mathematics. But about a third of the countries surveyed were engaged in national reform or debates linked to sport in society or PE at school, the report found.
However, concern has been raised about the amount of pressure being put on schools to solve a public health issue over which they have limited influence.
Professor David Kirk, director of the Institute for Sport and Physical Activity Research at the University of Bedfordshire in England, said that the study illustrated the fact that PE teachers were not in control of an agenda that is imposed on them.
"Governments get into an almost moral panic about the state of children's health, obesity and what that says about the state of the nation," he said. "They make decisions about physical education in schools based on that but PE teachers are excluded from those conversations."
Ken Hardman, emeritus professor at the Institute of Sport and Exercise Science at the University of Worcester in England, said that high drop-out rates for physical activity, the obesity epidemic and sedentary lifestyles are leading policymakers to reappraise the role of PE. "But these issues cannot be resolved by teachers alone," he said. "A more joined-up approach is needed."
Professor Hardman added that European Union countries should increase the amount of compulsory PE in schools and make sure that lessons are "meaningful" to students. "Games, athletics and gymnastics are increasingly becoming irrelevant to young people," he said.
The report, Physical Education and Sport at School in Europe, maps the situation in 30 countries. It is the first time that the subject has been explored on a continent-wide basis.
Research in Cyprus revealed an "alarming student health situation" relating to obesity, prompting a government initiative that encouraged students to take up extra-curricular sports. Austria wants to improve the health of its students by including fitness activities in regular subjects. In Denmark, schools are establishing running clubs for students and teachers. And, in England, a revised curriculum, due to come into effect in September 2014, continues to include PE as a compulsory subject but gives schools more freedom to develop their own options.
The report points out that England is one of only a few countries to emphasise the importance of competitive sport in personal development. This is in direct contrast to the approach of Finland, which encourages the development of skills for individual work and cooperation, but without the same competitive emphasis.
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Recommended number of hours of compulsory physical education for children aged 5-11 in the 2011-12 school year:
108 - France
93 - Poland
83 - Hungary
70 - Denmark
68 - Norway
53 - Spain
45 - Bulgaria
37 - Republic of Ireland
(The UK does not recommend a number of hours, only that physical education should be taught at least twice a week.)