Experts split on refining fitness or finding stars: School sport as fun or means to an end? The politicians and experts disagree. Wendy Berliner looks at both sides

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The Independent Online
SHOULD school sport be designed to produce cricket teams that can beat the West Indies? Or should it be an enjoyable activity designed to improve the general fitness of teenage couch potatoes?

Experts and politicians disagree. But many share worries that sports teaching has become inadequate, squeezed by the timetable demands of the national curriculum and the widespread sale of school playing fields.

The feeble performance of Britain's international sports stars and declining fitness of teenagers are pressing reasons to tackle sport - which could be cut to just 80 minutes a week under new national curriculum proposals.

Currently, Britain's secondary schools provide the least sport in Europe. France, Portugal and Switzerland provide about twice the amount of PE within school hours as Britain. Ten hours a week would give British children the most physical education in Europe.

The sports and health lobby wants more physical education in schools because it says children need at least two hours physical education a week to keep fit. The lobby is less bothered by what kind of physical activity it is. William Ross, honorary secretary of the Conference of Medical Royal Colleges, said: 'We are not in a position to say whether it should be football rather than rugby . . . What we are saying is that physical exercise in its broader sense does contribute to the fitness of the child and, therefore, to that of the young adult later.'

Emphasising fitness over competition has inspired schools in recent years to offer sports menus so that children can mix activities, which might include aerobics or dance.

But others, Ian Sproat included, would argue that aerobics is not as character- building as traditional competitive games - which make up 60 to 70 per cent of sport in schools.

Keith Andrew, chief executive of the National Cricket Association, said: 'Competitive sport in school is absolutely essential. Life's a competition, isn't it?

'These people who don't believe in competitive sport have got it wrong. How else can you learn to take the hard knocks of life?'

Many see an increased role for competitive team games in providing an outlet for the energies of teenagers which might alternatively be used on anti-social behaviour.

Peter Lawson, general secretary of the Central Council for Physical Recreation, said: 'Our youngsters have human qualities and these include energy, competitiveness and aggression. Sport offers a marvellous channel for all this and prevents it from boiling over and spilling on to the street. Sport is marvellous, irrespective of the strength or size of the youngster. It is important it is taught in schools because children will learn the educational values involved - that it's not just about winning at all costs.'

The council launched a charter for school sport two weeks ago, calling for a minimum of two hours a week.

The Physical Education Association, which represents PE teachers, lecturers and advisers, argues that physical education is far more than competitive team games, which it says can be elitist.

Peter Harrison, general secretary of the PEA, said that PE in schools had to find a niche for every child and not just the child with a talent for sport.

'There are between 180 and 190 sports in this country. If you are saying every school must offer cricket, football, netball and hockey, what about the aquatic sports, gymnastics, athletics and dance - what happens to them? You have to get the balance right.'