Brendan O'Malley on the pitch and payment problems that could muddy attempts to promote competitive games.
With the greater emphasis on games set down in the new curriculum Order this week Prime Minister John Major has fired the starting shot in his campaign to put sport, especially competitive team games, "back at the heart of school life". But there are a number of daunting hurdles to cross before he can realise his dream of sport taking its full place alongside maths and English.
The changes to the Order, announced yesterday, will require pupils to spend a greater proportion of PE and sports time playing games at every key stage. This will immediately put more pressure on those schools with restricted playing field space, poorly maintained pitches or who have to travel to playing grounds and it will height-en concern among schools whose sports grounds are under threat of being sold off to developers.
The National Playing Fields Association says it receives pleas for help from several hundred schools a year whose sites are under threat. According to the national Register of Recreational Land's figures, soon to be revised, of the 24,380 sites in England, 404 sites outside London, including about 200 school playing fields, are under threat from development with planning permission either already granted or being sought.
For example at Bolling Road first school, overlooking Ilkley Rocks in West Yorkshire, headteacher Christine Newson backs the Prime Minister's calls for more time to be spent on games. But a proposal by Bradford Council to sell off the top quarter of the sports fields would leave children playing in mud "up to their knees" on the bottom end of the school's sloping field. It would also make it impossible for the school to continue to host athletics and football tournaments for the Wharfedale School Sports Association.
Down the road in Menston, a commuter village half way between Bradford and Leeds, the local primary faces a similar proposal, to sell a strip at the top of the field for housing. "If it comes off it's exactly in line with the touchline of the football pitch," says headteacher David Sleightholme, "and it will be difficult to organise the rounders pitches in the summer months because they will be too close to the buildings."
The council is looking at more than 20 potential development sites on playing fields with a view to raising money to repair delapidated schools and to rebuild two that were destroyed by arson.
The NPFA is also concerned that the selling of playing fields will cause far greater problems in future when the school 5 to 15-year-old population is projected to increase from its trough of 6.4 million in 1991 to 7.5 million by 2006.
Keith Smith, chairman of the Interested Organisations Committee of the Central Council for Physical Education, the national association for the governing bodies of sport, says it is not just the numbers of pitches available that can be a problem but the quality. In a survey of 1,600 schools he conducted for the Secondary Heads Association in 1990 he found 51 per cent had drainage problems and 15 per cent had playing fields that did not meet the minimum requirement of being fit to play on for 7 hours per week.
Another issue of concern is how to encourage a return to widespread provision of out of hours sport, which fell away after a series of industrial disputes with teachers in the mid-1980s. Some see this as a key problem both for those who want to raise the standards of competitive sport - by providing opportunities for children to compete in team games with clubs and other schools on Saturday mornings and weekday evenings - and for those keen to curtail vandalism and the yob culture by doing more to offer teenagers a constructive way of occupying their spare time.
Keith Smith says: "I would like to see extra-curricular contributions - in drama and music as well - taken into account when assessing teachers' promotion and increases of salary."
He points out that the Office for Standards in Education does not even look at ex-curricular sport when it inspects schools and would like it to praise schools who show progress in this area. Teacher training institutions could also link up with the governing bodies of sport to get qualifications in refereeing and coaching.
However, Geoff Edmondson, general secretary of the British Association of Advisers and Lecturers in PE warns that while more games after hours would in principle be a good thing, it could hit the quality of PE teaching as more time is spent organising Saturday games for the few in the team.
He says that, ironically, the quality of physical education improved dramatically after the shift away from after hours activities as teachers put their effort into improving curriculum work.
There has also been a switch in emphasis away from competitive team matches towards open clubs. "There might be 50 pupils there instead of 12 and maybe they only play three games a term instead of 15," he explains, "but there's a lot more there learning the game."
What further steps will be taken to flesh out John Major's vision of school sports remains to be seen. The Department for Education and the Department of National Heritage are working on proposals but no announcement is imminent.