It's mid-morning at St Paul's C of E Primary School in Camden, but the classrooms are empty and there's not a soul in the playground. Where are the children? The answer is round the corner on Primrose Hill, where every one of the school's 220 pupils is preparing for a cross-country run: the once-a-term endurance event that's now a fixed feature of school life.
It's an impressive sight. Five classes are lining up at the start of the undulating one-mile, circular course, marked out by teachers. Parents spread themselves around the route to ensure that no child takes a wrong turn. But first, the four- to six-year-olds in Reception and Year 1 tackle a shorter, straight course of a few hundred yards.
This is an unusual event. Most British schools do little strenuous exercise on this scale as they do in other countries such as Australia, New Zealand and Japan. In Australia pupils have two 20-minute fitness sessions each week on top of an hour-long PE class, and lessons in competitive sport, even in temperatures of 40C.
On Primrose Hill, the young faces are bursting with effort. For some pupils the run represents quite a challenge, so teachers watch the backmarkers carefully and give encouragement to those running out of puff.
Still, every child completes the course. The finishing line is like a scene from the Olympics – the red faces, deep breaths and heaving chests testament to how hard the run was. Looking on proudly is the event's organiser, St Paul's Year 3 teacher, Alistair Chisholm, 27, a New Zealander and a firm believer in the benefits of strenuous exercise. "Some of them are telling me they're feeling tired and have a stitch," he says. "Ihis is something they should feel more often."
Cross-country running was a huge part of Chisholm's school life in New Zealand, and he recalls noticing how rarely it happened here when he arrived a few years ago. So Chisholm decided to test the water at St Paul's.
"When I first suggested to my kids that they do a cross-country run, they said it sounded like torture or punishment," he says. "But when they did it, they felt an obvious sense of achievement."
Simon Knowles, the head teacher, is also clear about the benefits. "I'm very much a believer that we at St Paul's should take every opportunity to do activities that improve children's fitness," he says. "These days, we are seeing children who struggle with walking and running, and it's important that they take part in events such as these."
The St Paul's "marathon" is the most obvious example of the emphasis that the school places on physical activity, to complement its above-average academic results. The school enters football, netball, bench-ball and swimming teams in inter-school competitions, and the winners of today's races will compete in local inter-school cross-country events. Some of these teams even practise in the early morning before school. This is over and above the two hours a week of timetabled PE lessons in every class.
A casual glance at Government claims of marked improvements in standards of school sport would suggest the vast majority of schools are making fitness a priority. A recent statement from Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary, contained the confident assertion that 86 per cent of school pupils were now doing two hours of high-quality physical education and sport a week – a dramatic increase from from 25 per cent in 2002. That conjures up the image of extended activities to expand lungs and stretch muscles, as well as to give instruction in a game or other sporting activity.
But the reality is that the survey from which the Government sourced the 86 per cent figure tells us little about what goes on in school PE lessons, and nothing at all about the amount of physical, fitness-related, activity.
This is because it was a "self-reporting" survey, where teachers – or, in some cases, administrators with responsibility for PE across groups of schools – fill in a form on the frequency and length of timetabled and other PE sessions. "Hand on heart, we don't know whether the lessons are of high-quality," concedes Margaret Talbot, chief executive of the Association for Physical Education, which represents school and college PE teachers, "because the questions asked in the surveys do not refer to any quality criteria."
Another way in which such statistics can be misleading lies in the distinction made by the PE establishment between physical education and physical activity. The key point is that the former encompasses all kinds of learning about athletic techniques, tactics, rules and teamwork and does not necessarily entail aerobic exercise.
"The survey did not measure physical activity. It measured physical education," says Steve Grainger, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, the agency in charge of running school sport for the Government.
"There's a clear picture of progress being made in physical education. But whether kids are actually getting their heart rates going enough is a separate question," Grainger says.
This admission has raised concern among those campaigning to increase the basic fitness of school-age children, against a background of rising levels of obesity in this age group.
The former British Olympic 400 metres silver medallist Roger Black spent a term last year observing PE lessons in a London comprehensive for a radio documentary on fitness levels in 12-year-olds. He was shocked by what he saw.
"What was supposed to be a 40-minute lesson was usually reduced to about 25 minutes after the kids had got changed," he says. "And half of them didn't even bring their kit, anyway.
"Teaching them how to throw a ball or play rounders in the gym is not real physical exercise. It'd be much better to get them all running or dancing for half an hour to get their heartbeats up. That's what we should be doing if we are concerned about the health of the nation. We're currently doing our kids a disservice," Black says.
Grainger argues, however, that there are no benefits in forcing children to do strenuous exercise. What is needed is that children see the advantages of physical activity and the disadvantages of not doing it, he says. But PE teachers themselves say they don't have enough time with pupils to have much effect on their fitness. "Because the curriculum requires us to teach skills and give students the knowledge and understanding of health-related exercise, there isn't always enough time to actually do that exercise," says Richard Emerson, head of PE at Winston Churchill Sports College in Woking. "Getting their heart rates up in lessons can be very difficult, so the effects on their fitness levels are negligible."
At the Association for Physical Education, Talbot says that she is constantly trying to raise the political profile of physical activity, but that PE teachers alone cannot be expected to solve the problem of declining fitness levels. "That will only happen if there is significant and sustained new funding from Government health budgets as well as from education."
'In Japanese schools, athletes are heroes'
The prominence given to physical activity in British schools, and its popularity among children, is still a long way behind some countries, such as Japan.
Rhian Yoshikawa, originally from Anglesey, moved to Japan in the Eighties, and her two children, Cai, 14, and Mena, 11, attend Japanese state schools in Chiba, 50 miles from Tokyo.
"The children have four hours of scheduled PE lessons a week, mainly gymnastics and team sports, such as football, basketball and judo. They have annual fitness tests and are under pressure from teachers to push themselves as hard as they can. Most Japanese parents were brought up on this disciplined approach and find it normal. Also, nearly all pupils must attend sports clubs, before or after school and at the weekend. Mena does a variety of activities in these clubs, including athletics and long-distance running. Cai is in the relatively laidback table tennis club, with practice after school every day and at weekends.
"Unlike what I've heard about the UK, peer pressure here works to increase children's levels of activity. Kids are given grief by their friends if they don't go to the clubs. When I went to school in Wales, I hated sport and never really tried – something I regretted later on – so I'm just glad my kids are getting the chance to try out different activities.
"My kids enjoy the companionship and the thrill of competing, but aren't very keen on training in cold weather. In general, sport is considered very serious in Japan. You even get a mark for it on your school report. Athletes are heroes. It isn't the moody, cool look that gets the girls. It's the shaven-headed, sunburnt baseball captain." SMcCReuse content