By Graeme Paton, Education Correspondent
Schools should try a wider range of sports, including archery and golf, to encourage teenagers to exercise, the Government said yesterday.
The Education Secretary, Alan Johnson, also suggested including cy
cling in new-style physical education lessons to raise interest in sport and fight childhood obesity.
Announcing a shake-up of PE lessons in English schools, Mr Johnson said that teachers will have more flexibility to offer a wider range of sports.
But he insisted that competition should remain a cornerstone of the curriculum and condemned the "perverse political correctness" that made some schools ban it.
In recent years some schools have decided that competitive sports are bad for children's development, saying they should work together rather than compete.
Last year, almost three-quarters of pupils took part in competitive activities within their schools, such as house or class matches and leagues. Just over a third take part in competition between schools.
In a speech to a school sport conference in Telford, Mr Johnson said: "Children will always want to take part in a range of sports – in some they will challenge themselves as individuals, whilst in others they will compete against their peers.
"It was an absurd and perverse political correctness which caused competitive sports to be banned in some schools and I hope we never see a return to such nonsense."
The Government is preparing to increase the amount of compulsory sport at school, with the current minimum of two hours' PE a week due to become four hours in 2010.
According to the Government, football remains the most popular sport among pupils, played at 98 per cent of schools, followed by athletics at 92 per cent, cricket at 89 per cent, netball at 81 per cent and hockey and rugby at 77 per cent.
But Mr Johnson said the number of schools putting cycling and golf on the timetable had increased by two-thirds in recent years, while archery has grown almost three-fold, with 90,000 state school pupils taking lessons.
Mr Johnson promised schools more flexibility to run the activities that best suit their pupils under changes to be detailed in coming weeks by the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the exam watchdog.
PE lessons for ages 11 to 14 will also include classes about how exercise affects fitness and health, which Mr Johnson said would "pay huge dividends later in life". "What is important is that pupils are active and understand how it is benefiting them in the broadest sense," he said.
Tony Blair also spoke at the Youth Sport Trust conference in Telford yesterday, and echoed his minister's comments. Modern "desk-bound" and "sedentary" lifestyles had created a lack of interest in exercise, he said.
The Prime Minister announced that 10 more schools had attained sports specialist status, which lets them claim extra funding. The total in England is now more than 400.
"This is a tremendous turn-around," he said. "At times the decline in school sport must have felt terminal."
Mr Blair blamed the lack of interest in sport on the Conservatives, saying they allowed too many playing fields to be sold off and permitted neglect of public open spaces.
The Government had improved facilities at schools, he said. But he admitted that he was still "ambitious" to do more, and said he hoped the Olympics would get more youngsters involved in healthy activity.