British schoolchildren spend less time doing physical education than any other children in Europe or the USA, according to unpublished research obtained by The TES.
The findings are certain to embarrass Prime Minister John Major who has been conducting a high-profile campaign to persuade schools to include a minimum of two hours of PE in their timetable.
The research, compiled by the European Union of Physical Education Associations, emerges just two days after Mr Major announced plans to boost sporting excellence with a new national academy and a new category of selective sports colleges. It is likely to fuel criticism that the plans are elitist and will do little to address growing concern about lack of fitness among schoolchildren.
The survey shows that British secondary-aged pupils are taught less than two hours PE a week compared with more than three hours in Austria, Norway, Portugal, Spain and Switzerland.
In France, Germany and the Netherlands, pupils get three hours whereas in Belgium, Finland, Ireland, Italy and Luxembourg they have between two and two-and-a-half hours a week.
In primary schools the UK also came bottom, with Ireland, teaching PE for barely 90 minutes a week. Switzerland, Portugal, Luxembourg and France were top with at least three hours.
The findings are given added weight by another unpublished survey by researchers at Exeter University. This shows that nearly half of secondary-school girls and more than a third of boys do not spend the equivalent of 10 minutes brisk walking in the course of three school days.
Neil Armstrong, professor of health and exercise sciences at Exeter University, and past president of the UK Physical Education Association, said Britain's poor rating on the amount of time devoted to PE was further evidence of the damage caused by the Government's education reforms.
"Recent surveys have demonstrated unequivocally that since the introduction of the national curriculum there has been a marked decline in the resources and time devoted to curricular PE," he said.
Earlier this month the Department for Education and Employment published results of its own survey which Lord Henley, the junior education minister, claimed showed school PE and sport was "buoyant and thriving".
Keith Smith, deputy chairman of the Central Council for Physical Recreation and a former head teacher, said he was "appalled" by the presentation of the DFEE findings, criticising it for failing to give a statistical breakdown. A Sports Council officer described the survey as a "whitewash".
Although the findings showed that nearly a half of secondary schools failed to provide two or more hours of timetabled PE a week, Lord Henley told Parliament that three-quarters of primary and almost all secondary schools offered extra-curricular sport.
The Government has come under severe criticism from sporting bodies and PE teachers for failing to do enough to arrest a decline in the amount of sport in schools. Out-of-hours competitive sport has been hit by a combination of teachers being less willing to take on extra duties because of increased workloads and changes in working practices, as well as financial pressure on schools to sell off "surplus" playing fields. Mr Major's announcement marks a shift away from a grassroots "sport for all" policy. Now the aim is to improve the country's performance in the Olympic Games and other major sporting competitions.
This week he unveiled plans for a national academy of sport, funded by a Pounds 100 million lottery grant. Universities will also be encouraged to develop sporting scholarships. The Prime Minister insisted, however, wanted to provide "a ladder of opportunity for young people of all abilities". He also wants to foster closer links between schools and clubs.
He also announced plans for a new category of specialist college, allowing schools to select pupils on the basis of sporting ability. The move has been long anticipated, but seems to have been delayed because of disagreements between the DFEE and Downing Street.