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Love it or hate it, sport is for all;Millennium Edition

Physical education has long been an important part of schooling. Diane Spencer reports on the state of play

The Western obsession with sport started in 776 BC with the Olympic games. So blame the Greeks for the torment on the terraces, Test match trials and hubris or humiliation on school sports day.

But for British children the focus on sport began in 1870 when the Education Act, introducing free primary education, suggested that army drill instructors should be employed in schools. "Drill" became "physical exercise", then "physical training" when the first official PT syllabus was published for schools in 1904. For many children this meant lining up in cold playgrounds to take part in dull, repetitive exercise that was based on Swedish gymnastics.

Organised team games were already well-established, particularly in public schools. But attitudes towards games varied from the poet Sir Henry Newbolt's romantic view embodied in The Island Race of 1898: "There's a breathless hush in the Close tonight I Play up! play up! and play the game!" to Sir John Betjeman's recollection of his childhood in Summoned by Bells (1960): "The dread of beatings! Dread of being late!And, greatest dread of all, the dread of games!" As for girls, The TES's medical correspondent in April 1921 noted: "Women are not and cannot become 'good fellows'. No amount of 'rough and tumble' will serve to alter the facts of their bodies and minds except in the direction of catastrophe. The muscular development of a woman is such that she is unable to adapt herself to the conditions of rough games."

In the early 1930s a freer approach to physical exercise, that included rhythmic movement, began to spread from Denmark. During the Second World War, educationists realised that exercising that children do naturally, such as running, jumping, climbing, swinging and throwing, was part of growing up and should be used in physical education. With the expansion of free education under the 1944 Education Act, a variety of apparatus to encourage these activities appeared in playgrounds and school halls, as did music and movement lessons. At secondary level, the basic PE curriculum was gymnastics and two or three major team games: football, rugby, cricket for boys; hockey, netball and tennis for girls.

Pupils who were dismissed in school reports as no good at games often had to resort to duplicity to avoid a hated sport. But others saw these as the halcyon days, with Saturday mornings spent playing inter-school competitions, cups in glass cases and wooden plaques of school sporting heroes adorning the entrance hall.

By the 1970s this narrow syllabus gave way to a wider choice of activities: climbing, orienteering, aerobics, weight training and volleyball among them.

But then the wave of teachers' industrial action in the mid-1980s, hostility to competitive games by some Labour-controlled councils, and encouragement from Margaret Thatcher's Conservative government for schools and councils to sell playing fields, put paid to much extra-curricular sport.

The 1988 Education Reform Act, with its highly prescriptive national curriculum, made PE compulsory throughout the four key stages. By the early 1990s, John Major and his sports minister, Iain Sproat, were so horrified at a perceived decline in team games in schools that they out-manoeuvred John Patten, the Education Secretary, to produce the policy document Sport: Raising the Game in 1995 to boost all levels of sport, from the school to the Olympic podium.

The latest national curriculum review kept PE as a compulsory subject, but dropped compulsory team games for 14 to 16-year-olds, giving more choice to older pupils.

In 1997, sport and arts joined the specialist schools programme established in 1993 with technology and languages: there are now 60 sports colleges out of a total of 446.

The National Lottery, set up five years ago, has made a big contribution to improving school sports facilities, and youth sport is set to prosper under Labour's New Opportunities Fund.

The Government and teachers have provided the chances: they can now only hope that teenagers growing up with computer games and satellite TV will get off their couches and find some form of exercise.

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