7th July 2000 at 01:00
Do children need physical education? There is plenty of anxiety about the place of PE in the curriculum. But is there a consensus? Do we all agree how PE benefits children? A nationally agreed audit of PE's role in children's lives is long overdue.

It may be true that most parents are keen on the subject, although hard data is thin on the ground. (The bane of secondary PE teachers' lives are the children who don't bring their kit week after week, and who usually have a collusive note excusing them.) How many children walk anywhere any more? And isn't diet equally significant in maintaining health and fitness? Besides the vocal lobby in support of PE's role in health education, other advocates say it fosters a healthy spirit of competition, or that it teaches children the value of teamwork.

Still others praise its ability to help us disregard the "two impostors" of triumph and disaster. One thing is certain - we shall never be significant international competitors in cricket, rugby union or tennis as long as the independent school sector continues to be the largely exclusive nursery for these sports.

The teaching week is now as crowded as a city centre in the rush hour. The officially favoured curriculum areas in key stages 1 and 2 - literacy and numeracy - have elbowed out any time for treasured activities in the humanities and arts. Once you add the requirement for citizenship, careers and work-related learning, earlier sex education - and road safety - the prospets for athletic activities of any kind become bleak.

Now the sports minister, Kate Hoey, has announced yet another publicprivate initiative - the use of independent schools' lavish facilities by impoverished maintained schools.

She compares the time we voluntarily give to sports unfavourably with teachers in independent schools. But despite our atrocious facilities, staff at my school have managed to develop pupils' skills to levels that bring us exceptional success locally and regionally.

So, what do we need? More money must be spent to raise the number and status of specialist teachers in primary and secondary schools. Far too much PE is taught by teachers with qualifications in other areas, or by parent volunteers. PE specialists could work a differently timed school day, with the bulk of their responsibility after lunch, then after school.

The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority could consider a more flexible and imaginative approach to literacy and numeracy, allowing teachers to deliver content-based subjects (for example, history or science) through the literacy and numeracy hours. This would release time for PE, which is particularly under threat in primary schools.

And parents? Maybe a national initiative is needed to raise the understanding of health and fitness, embracing diet, exercise, smoking and drugs, all problematic features of many children's lives, in spite of our best efforts.

Adam Elgar is a deputy head in Bristol

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