Decade of conflict that set off the decline

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The Independent Online
A century and a half after the battle of Waterloo was won (or not) on the playing fields of Eton, school sport in Britain was still in good shape, writes Judith Judd.

The dramatic decline began in the 1980s. Some say the first sign was the Government's decision in 1982 to allow local authorities to sell school playing fields. A few point to the decision of left-wing local councils to discourage competitive sports. Most agree that the teachers' strike of the mid-Eighties transformed the position of after-school sport.

Following a bitter dispute over pay, during which after-school activities suffered, the teachers, who had previously had no contractual hours, were forced to accept contracts of 1,265 hours a year. Many reacted by working only the stipulated hours. Teacher goodwill was further undermined by a series of attacks by ministers on the profession.

In 1988, the Education Reform Act introduced the biggest upheaval in schools for 40 years. Teachers found themselves having to spend evenings and weekends working to keep up with changes in the national curriculum and testing. Some continued to take part in sporting activities outside school. Others said they were too tired.

Pupils' attitudes have also changed. A survey by the Secondary Heads' Association earlier this year found that pupils' Saturday jobs were one of the biggest obstacles to weekend sport. For teenagers there arecompeting attractions such as videos and computer games.

The nature of PE has been changing. A new generation of PE teachers has emphasised the relationship of PE and health, insisting schools must offer activities which pupils enjoy - dance, badminton and aerobics. A wider range of activities is on offer than 30 years ago.

John Major's vision of a return to the days when the shadows lengthened on thousands of school cricket pitches is at odds with this. He may find it difficult to turn back the clock.