|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
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
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
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
"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
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,"
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."
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
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." SMcC