The welcome the sports community has given for the restoration of physical education at key stages 1 and 2 in the National Curriculum 2000 proposals is tinged with a degree of wariness.
The belief that PE was being squeezed out of the primary timetable was supported by last year's National Association of Head Teachers' survey, which found 41 per cent of primary schools reporting significantly decreased activity over the previous two years. Of them, 29 per cent blamed initiative overload, and 48 per cent blamed pressure from the national curriculum.
Facilities for games are a common problem. Only 6 per cent of primary schools had a gym, 8 per cent a swimming pool and 3 per cent a tennis court. Most had a hall, but almost a quarter reported that, because of other uses, such as assemblies, meals and examinations, the time it was available was inadequate for PE. Most also had access to a playing field but more than half had to share.
Reinstatement in the curriculum will help with some of these issues but Julie Whelan, education officer for the Youth Sport Trust, says: "So long as the emphasis is so heavily on numeracy and literacy, with schools feeling they are being judged on their test results, it will be a struggle for PE."
Reports by the Office for Standards in Education suggest that PE is one of the better-taught subject areas in primary schools. But John Matthews, chief executive of the Physical Education Association, points to a particular concern: "We would like to see a qualified physical education teacher in every primary school, but we are a very long way from that." The problem stems from the teacher training curriculum, in which physical education is marginalised. "In four years, a qualified primary school teacher may get only seven or eight hours on PE. That means they'll start with safety - which makes sense - but they won't get much beyond that."
Mr Matthews, a former head of PE at a secondary school, has little doubt that the quality of teaching in a primary school makes an immense difference to children's skills. "After a little while I found that I could identify which of our feeder schools a new pupil came from without knowing anything else about them," he says. "All I had to do was see how well they performed fairly basic tasks like throwing or kicking a ball."
Ms Whelan argues tht "someone who has had only a few hours of training won't feel very competent or confident". But pressure for an enhanced PE role in the teacher training curriculum will run into the standard difficulty that there are numerous subjects jostling for a slice of the timetable.
The development of sports equipment specifically for young children, such as small sizes in tennis rackets and balls that bounce slowly, will make a significant difference to primary school PE, says Mr Matthews. Ms Wheelan agrees: "In the past teachers were handicapped by equipment which was too large for the children to handle comfortably." Another positive development is the indoor javelin, which is a response to the problems of schools that lack outdoor facilities. "It is made out of polystyrene and, while it won't go very far unless it is released quickly, it provides the opportunity to learn the essential techniques of throwing," Mr Matthews says.
Devolved budgets have made an impact by allowing teachers to make more of their own purchasing decisions and making suppliers more responsive. "Firms are much more willing to bring their equipment to schools to allow teachers to look properly before making the decision whether or not to buy," says Mr Matthews.
School sport now has a potent voice at national level: Sue Campbell, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, has been seconded for a year as Government adviser on PE, reporting jointly to sports minister Kate Hoey and school standards minister Estelle Morris. Her appointment acknowledges the vital role the YST already plays: putting around pound;1.6 million into projects last year, offering training and equipment. New initiatives last year included Sportsability for the disabled, launched last May.
Schools can look for help under the New Opportunities Fund programme which was launched last October. Intended to reach half of the secondary and special schools and a quarter of primary schools in the country, the programme offers pound;205 million to be spent by 2002 on out of school hours activities - which could be physical education, sport, drama, information technology or other activities - targeted on the most disadvantaged pupils. Around pound;36 million has been allotted so far.
Ms Whelan remains optimistic: "Priorities change over time. We've had literacy and numeracy, now citizenship. Why shouldn't it be PE's turn soon?"
PE Association stand B9
New Opportunities Fund stand L43