The Government is expecting big things from PE over the next few years. It has pledged to increase the minimum sports requirement from two hours a week to five. But this still falls short of the Health Education Authority's recommended exercise target of an hour a day.
While the intentions are admirable - particularly given the growth in childhood obesity - doubts remain about whether primary schools have the experience, time or expertise to meet the target.
The Association for Physical Education estimates that more than 40 per cent of newly qualified primary teachers begin their careers with as little as six hours of PE training. Primary PGCE students must study 10 subjects over the course of a year - or eight months excluding holidays - half of which is spent in schools.
With such limited training time, PE is regularly neglected, says Margaret Talbot, chief executive of the association. "It means that neither new teachers nor their pupils receive the quality provision they need," she says. "They don't have the knowledge to keep pupils safe, let alone the capability to deliver engaging lessons."
The Training and Development Agency for Schools insists that though PE training for primary teachers is brief, it does not stop with their PGCE. Instead, knowledge and skills are developed in placement schools and then during permanent teaching jobs.
"The majority of training in core and non-core subjects, including PE, takes place in schools," explains Graham Holley, chief executive of the agency. But that presumes that primary schools are in a position to nurture PE provision.
"If schools have a background in approaching PE imaginatively, then there isn't a problem," says Jeanne Keay, who taught PE before becoming dean of education at Roehampton University, in southwest London. "But if they already feel ill at ease with the subject, student teachers won't have their university experience reinforced in schools, and that leads to sub- standard provision."
The notoriously crowded primary curriculum is another hurdle. The introduction of foreign languages is already making it hard for primary schools to fit foundation subjects in, says John, a primary teacher and PE co-ordinator in Sheffield.
He opted to complete various coaching badges during his four-year BSc education course at Leeds Metropolitan University, but now finds it difficult to utilise his knowledge or enthuse other members of staff. "Many teachers find teaching PE difficult," he says. "They don't think of it as a priority, which results in poor, unenthusiastic lessons. When professional development opportunities arise, I almost have to force teachers to take them. When they realise that many courses involve personal participation, they almost have a heart attack. How can that be a positive role model for children?"
PGCE students at Roehampton University receive 16 hours of PE training a year - the same as other foundation subjects. It is split into four areas: perception, movement and development, school placements and practical activities.
"The most important field is changing attitudes," says Dom Hayden-Davies, the senior lecturer in physical education. "About 30 per cent of trainees will have a negative view of PE. They won't have enjoyed it themselves at school and don't particularly want to teach it. We have to unpick those issues and really promote a more open frame of mind."
There is also a general misunderstanding about what effective primary PE provision is, Mr Hayden-Davies believes. "Being healthy and sporty are important, but they are outcomes. Every child has the right to PE, no matter whether it's competitive or purely recreational."
Schools should provide a wide range of generic activities that every pupil can build on, he argues. Jumping, leaping, catching, throwing, improving co-ordination and learning to work as a team are useful skills for every sport, and form the foundation for later preferences. Without a basic ability to catch a ball, no girl will choose to play netball at secondary school.
St George's Primary in Telford, Shropshire, ensures every pupil is catered for in PE, regardless of age or proficiency. Everything from golf played with plastic clubs, to table tennis, yoga, t'ai chi and cheerleading is available. Relay races and problem-solving orienteering are undertaken alongside traditional sports, circus skills and even cup-stacking competitions.
"Cup stacking gets both parts of the brain going," explains Peter Blair, a teacher at the school who specialised in PE during his BEd 15 years ago. "It's so important to get the fundamentals in place first, which focus on motor skills and co-ordination. You have to be able to stand on one foot before you can learn to control and kick a football."
St George's Primary takes every opportunity that comes its way. It has been involved in Football Association courses, the annual Tesco Great School Run, and work with local sports clubs.
Since September 2006, every state school has been affiliated to the Pounds 750 million School Sport Partnerships. It links a specialist sports college with eight secondary and 30 primary schools in the area so that all can share best practice and facilities.
School sports co-ordinators (usually specialist teachers at the sports college) or external experts are essential to achieving the target of five hours of sport a week for primary pupils, and a valuable source of continuing professional development. However, Karen Van-Berlo, senior lecturer in sport and exercise science at the University of Worcester, is concerned that these links can be misused. "Instead of learning from experts who come in, it's seen as a way of opting out by some teachers, who use the time for planning, preparation and assessment," she says. "It's deskilling primary teachers and that's detrimental."
Coaches who are bought in may have no knowledge of the national curriculum, adds Professor Talbot, of the Association for Physical Education. But without them, inexperienced teachers may be at a loss for what to do. They may still deliver two hours of PE - as about 90 per cent of schools now do - but the quality of lessons varies enormously. Also, those two hours are likely to include changing times and may not be a weekly occurrence, especially during busy revision times.
But schools that value physical activity make it happen, says David Barnett, head of Chudleigh Community Primary in Devon. "New teachers don't get a great deal of PE experience as part of their initial teacher training, so we make sure we develop their skills. It's integral to all we do here.
"We have wide and varied activities during lunchtimes and find the pupils are much more ready to learn as a result."
Schools certainly have a role to play, adds Ms Van-Berlo, but individuals should also seek out opportunities to develop professionally. "It's not just about waiting for courses to turn up," she says. "Observing other teachers can be helpful, as can learning from your children's sports clubs."
The time to act is now, says Professor Talbot. By the time pupils enter secondary school, many will be too overweight, unmotivated or self- conscious to give sport a try, research shows. Teenage girls become particularly reluctant; up to 40 per cent drop out of physical recreation by the age of 18. However, catch them in primary school, when they are naturally active, and they are more likely to maintain a healthier lifestyle for longer. "If pupils don't get the bug in primary schools, when they're constantly moving, running around and exploring, they never will," says Professor Talbot. "The solution starts with getting the right training in place for student teachers."
STATE OF THE NATION
By 2010, all children should take part in two hours of physical education in school, plus three hours of extra curricular sport per week.
By 2020, 90 per cent of secondary school pupils should be taking part in five sessions of 60 minutes of physical activity per week. All pupils should receive at least two hours per week of physical education.
By 2022, all children should participate in at least one hour of moderate activity on most days of the week.
By 2014, in addition to two hours of sport in school, every child over the age of eight should participate in at least two hours per week of extra- curricular sport.
Source: Association for Physical Education Health Position Paper, September 2008.
- PE-related publications: www.afpe.org.uk
- Sports coaching, training and resources: www.1st4sport.com
- CPD opportunities: Search for "physical education" at cpdsearch.tda.gov.uk
- Courses, seminars and events: www.afpe.org.ukpublicncfcpd_courses.htm
- Be part of the solution: The National PE and School Sport Professional Development programme aims to gather evidence of good practice from key stage 4 PE teachers. Its goal is to develop a bank of information and best practice that will be shared across the profession. Visit www.nationalpesscpd.com for more information.