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PE classes still off the pace

Activity co-ordinators have been highly successful in persuading primary kids to run around more but their presence is adding only minutes a week to core physical education classes.

A study over the first three years of the physical activity co-ordinator programme shows that the average time for PE has risen by just two minutes, from 64 to 66 minutes. In P6 and P7, it has gone up from 66 to 72 minutes.

Nationally, the Scottish Executive-led physical activity task force set the aim of "at least two hours' quality physical education classes a week", although this is more an aspirational target as co-ordinators spread across authorities.

The study in 11 pilot primaries across five authorities by the Scottish Council for Research in Education emphasises that the activity programme is not a substitute for core PE, although it has had strong positive effects on pupils and schools. It can begin to change lifestyles even in disadvantaged communities.

An interim report on the 2002 data, only recently disclosed by Sportscotland - the agency behind the programme - found that pilot schools initially cut 20 minutes from their average weekly lessons, down from 80 to 60 minutes. The final report states that PE time is static.

Ministers have pinned their political support to the activity programme and last month announced that it would be expanded to all primary-secondary school clusters with some 600 staff appointed under a pound;24 million programme.

Jack McConnell, the First Minister, said the co-ordinators would "help change Scotland's couch potato culture for good".

Research led by Kevin Lowden at the SCRE Centre shows that co-ordinators are promoting more activity at breaks, lunchtimes and after school and have helped to advance overall approaches to activity, sport and health.

Initiatives such as "The Class Moves!", which suggests simple physical activities in the classroom, have been more widely adopted.

The PE profession reacted cautiously to Mr McConnell's announcement in January, fearing the dilution of standards if co-ordinators were not trained PE teachers. It is certain to be even more anxious ahead of the ministerial response to the national PE review that is expected shortly.

Mr Lowden's final report, which is to be published soon, advises that co-ordinators should act primarily as facilitators "but may need to adopt a 'hands-on role' in specific circumstances". It is not essential, he says, for them to be qualified teachers.

The amount of time P5-P7 pupils spent being active increased in all the pilot schools. The average rose from 12.5 hours in 2001 to 20 hours a week in 2003, roughly three hours a day.

In two authorities, pupils' overall average time spent doing physical activity per week increased by between nine and 13 hours. "Many of these schools have raised their levels of pupil physical activity to match those of schools in more affluent areas," Mr Lowden reports.

One school with many pupils from disadvantaged communities increased the number going to after-school clubs by a third.

As expected, boys are more active, spending an average 20 hours a week of physical activity in 2003 compared with 14 hours in 2001. Over the same period, girls increased their hours from 12 to 19. But boys are more active at breaks. There is no significant gender difference in activity after school or at weekends and both boys and girls are "extremely positive" about sport, activity and PE.

The report confirms that headteachers are beginning to change their views about facilities. By 2003, 67 per cent thought that their schools were adequate for physical activity and sport, compared with only 17 per cent three years ago.

The main concerns continue to be small halls in rural schools and the limitations of multi-function halls where PE and school dinners vie for space.

Playgrounds may also be restricted and need appropriate markings for a range of games and activities. Other factors are limited grass areas, vandalism and heavy rain which can waterlog pitches. Schools complain that they have inadequate or inaccessible storage for PE equipment.

Co-ordinators, heads and local authority managers agree that a number of factors can help or hinder. Top of the list are the attitudes of the headteacher and staff to activity and health, followed by curricular pressures and national testing and the need to dovetail with development planning.

Some co-ordinators missed their slot in the planning cycle and made little impact in their first year. Co-ordinators say they depend on support from managers in the local authority but the degree of commitment can vary.

Mr Lowden found that rural schools and those with poor public transport had more problems taking pupils to suitable venues. "In some communities fear of bullying or possible assault meant that some pupils were unwilling to travel to venues at certain times of the day," he states.

Some 70 per cent of parents say they would like their children to be more active, with swimming (19 per cent) and football (14 per cent) the most popular preferences.

In his recommendations, Mr Lowden appeals to the Executive for continued financial support, "as distinct from pump-priming", if the programme is to be sustained.

Authorities need to consider the activity needs of the 9 per cent of children identified with health problems. More work with girls is also needed.

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