Football: Can we have our ball games back, please?: Our squandered heritage

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The Independent Online

After a 12-year campaign by the National Playing Fields Association, Britain's first central register of recreational land was finally published this year. It shows that there are approximately 74,000 sports pitches in England (there are still no figures for the rest of Britain), spread over some 24,000 sites and covering around 150,000 acres. Six hundred of these sites, 200 of them school playing fields, are at present the subject of planning applications or appeals. In recent years, cases of playing fields under threat have been brought to the attention of the NPFA at a rate of about 300 sites a year. The generally accepted figure for a healthy acreage of playing fields in a given area is six acres per thousand children over the age of eight. Local authorities often justify sales of playing fields on the grounds that their present stocks exceed this ratio, and in any case are underused. What they fail to take into account is that in 10 years' time, according to Department of Education figures, there will be 17 per cent more children in school than there are today; and that, once a playing field has been built upon, it is almost unheard of for it subsequently to revert to its recreational use.


Twenty years ago, all English schools included at least four half-hour PE/games periods each week as well as evening and Saturday morning sports activities. Ten years ago, three-quarters of all pupils at state schools were still getting two hours of PE/games. Today, less than a third receive even this minimum. Between 1984 and 1990, the number of physical education teachers (not necessarily physical education specialists) in the UK fell from 39,200 to 35,500. Would-be teachers at present undergoing teacher-training can expect to receive no more than 8 to 10 hours of training in physical education during an entire four-year course. According to the Queen's Speech, the Government is to look at ways of improving teacher training; the Central Council of Physical Recreation will be lobbying for the question of PE to be included in any such review - but more in hope than in expectation. In the meantime, 90 per cent of physical education in primary schools continues to be taught by unqualified staff. In state schools, the amount spent on each pupil's physical education every year is about pounds 11. At Eton College the figure is pounds 111.


The recommended minimum amount of time spent on physical activity in schools in most European countries is now two hours a week. Superficially, the British curriculum's recommendation of two hours' physical education (including organised games) a week does not compare unfavourably with this. But only 29 per cent of British schools now claim to meet this target - and it is widely believed that large numbers of schools are failing to meet it by a considerable margin. There are also widespread fears that future adjustments to the British curriculum will see sport and PE marginalised still further. The German, French and Swedish curricula, meanwhile, all prescribe three hours' physical education a week, while talented German schoolchildren have the option of choosing sport as one of their special subjects - in which case they will receive six to eight lessons in sport every week. Combine this with the steady flow of qualified British physical education teachers to the private sector rather than to state schools, and it is difficult to feel much confidence in Britain's ability to compete successfully with her international sporting rivals in 10 years' time.

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