Downing Street said that John Major had asked the Education and National Heritage departments for proposals on extending sport in schools. Two teacher unions roundly condemned the suggestion of more team games, while a third offered support - at a price.
The response from teachers followed an initiative by Iain Sproat, the national heritage minister, to promote games which he regards as character-building. He believes that all secondary schools should teach at least five team games and that they should take part in league and cup competitions.
Mr Sproat has sent an 8,000-word report to Downing Street, but Mr Major's office said yesterday that he had not seen it. It was confirmed, though, that the Prime Minister was interested in promoting competitive sport in schools.
A joint statement from Downing Street, the Department for Education and the Department of National Heritage said work was being done on a range of options for developing team games. Mr Major had not yet seen the proposals.
John Patten, the Secretary of State for Education, told Radio 4's Today programme yesterday that he wanted to see a high standard of good sporting activity.
'It is sad that during the Eighties there has been a decline in team games. But we are now seeing a substantial revision of the national curriculum,' he said.
Nigel de Gruchy, general secretary of the National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers, said he was writing to the Prime Minister about this 'golden opportunity' to restore the nation's sporting fortunes. But to make team games compulsory would be the 'kiss of death', he added.
Mr de Gruchy, who played in goal in the semi-final of the universities' football knock-out cup in 1963, said that he would ask Mr Major to cut down bureaucratic assessments to make more time for sport. Teachers should be paid pounds 20 per hour rather than the pounds 2 being suggested by Mr Sproat, he added.
'There is no doubt that the nation's sporting decline and regular humiliation upsets many million of people. If they were to offer teachers appropriate additional payments then I would envisage that you would have a queue of volunteers as long as your arm,' he said.
The National Union of Teachers attacked Mr Sproat's paper, which suggests that teachers should be paid another pounds 500 a year to work an extra 10 hours a week and says schools should all offer cricket, football, rugby, hockey and netball.
Doug McAvoy, the union's general secretary and a former physical education teacher, attacked Mr Sproat's plan to compel all teachers to be trained to take two sports.
'It is all very well for Mr Sproat to say teachers should take these sports but there are physical reasons why some cannot,' he said.
In Bournemouth, at the Association of Teachers and Lecturers' conference, a motion was passed deploring the proposals for increasing workload. Peter Smith, the ATL's general secretary, said Mr Patten should dissociate himself from the paper's 'lunatic proposals'.
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