Results create unhealthy obsession

AS a Newcastle fan I try not to listen to Manchester United's manager, Sir Alex Ferguson. But even I had to concede he had a point recently when he highlighted the decline of sport in schools.

The Government should "restore sport to a respectable place in the life of schools" he said, warning of an "anti-sport mentality" in the curriculum.

His remarks follow the England football team's early departure from Euro 2000. However, England's continuing dismal cricket performance (last week's miraculous win not withstanding) and the fact that no British tennis player made the last eight at Wimbledon, show they have a wider resonance.

Industrial action, the sale of playing fields and increased pressure for academic results means that for two decades sport has been sliding down schools' list of priorities. And this is having an effect not just on British teams but also on our health.

A recent survey by Sport England shows the extent of the decline. The number of pupils spending two or more hours of lesson time doing sport has fallen by more than a half in the past five years - only one in nine six to eight-year-olds now does two hours' PE a week.

Sport in school has been squeezed at a time when young people are doing less exercise than ever before. Computer games, junk food and parents' fears about letting children out alone have created an unhealthy lifestyle.

There are more fat kids in Britain than ever before. In the past decade the number of obese six-year-olds has doubled and the number of obese 15-year-olds has more than trebled. These children are at serious risk of developing heart disease and weak bones later in life.

It is disturbing that we have cracked our own genetic code yet we remain unable to persuade ourselves or our children to live healthier lifestyles.

Ministers need to grasp th nettle. Despite their protestations, playing fields are still being sold off. And they cannot expect teachers grappling with the latest government initiative to be out on the sports field at the same time.

Specialist sports colleges, after-school clubs and improved coaching may help today's starlets make their mark at the 2010 World Cup or the 2012 Olympics but they are unlikely to widen the pool of talent available or galvanise those kids who prefer hi-tech heroes such as Lara Croft to do their exercise for them.

A government which has courted popularity through England's 2006 World Cup bid and professes to want opportunity for all should be doing more.

As Nigel Hook, spokesman for the Central Council for Physical Recreation, an umbrella body which includes both the major sports associations and the teaching unions as members, says: "It's only going to be 10 per cent of pupils doing after-school clubs. If we are really going to tackle health and social exclusion we need to reach the other 90 per cent."

There is only one foolproof way to do that. If headteachers are to resist the temptation to marginalise sport in the relentless pressure to move their school up the league tables, then they need backing. Each child should be guaranteed a minimum of two hours PE a week within the curriculum. It is not a lot to ask - the recommended amount of exercise for a seven-year-old is seven hours.

Despite pressure from successive sports ministers, the Department for Education and Employment has always resisted such a move. And Education Secretary David Blunkett, who has staked his job on meeting his literacy target, will take some persuading.

He should think again. Improving academic achievement is vital, but while continued sporting failure may be a price worth paying, our children's health is not.

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