Obesity, poor physical fitness of children and their causal dependency are associated with many preventable diseases and present a serious current and future public health problem [1
]. Regular and quality physical activity during childhood is one part of the equation (quality nutrition being the other) that can lead to improvements in numerous physiological and morphological variables in children [2
]. In addition, there are also numerous other benefits of physical activity on children's psychological development [3
], lifestyle development [6
], social development [9
] and cognitive development [11
]. A considerable part of children's physical activity is presently allocated to regular physical education (PE) classes in schools [14
], because economic pressures [15
] and parental concern for safety [16
] often reduce children's physical activity in non-school settings. In Slovenia, this is especially problematic in the first years of school, when PE classes are frequently delivered by generalist teachers without appropriate PE teaching competences [18
], because this can result in less effective physical fitness development, followed by increased risks of obesity and diminishing of motor skills and functional abilities, which then can lead to unfavourable results in adulthood [26
The existing evidence suggests that activities for children have to be organised to be effective, because idle leisure, e.g. summer holidays, seem to be counterproductive for physical and motor development [27
], and because there seem to be no difference between obese and non-obese children in unorganised leisure-time activities [29
]. PE as an organised and compulsory activity could, therefore, be one of few possible environments for the successful intervention against the health-risk problems related to physical inactivity and obesity.
Often authorities try to improve negative trends with special interventions in schools but such programmes usually fail to produce considerable positive long-term effects [30
]. The interventions usually include the allocation of additional time to physical education [31
], specially designed after-school programmes [34
], or a changed design of PE delivery [36
]. However, this brings demands for additional temporal, spatial, human and economic resources.
In addition, the existing evidence shows that programmes with compulsory physical activity components, such as regular PE classes, seem to be superior to those based on educational interventions, as adherence is guaranteed [37
]. Therefore, we tried to determine whether the negative trends can be improved within the educational system and existing PE curriculum, without time-limited and thus economically less effective external interventions or special voluntary intervention programmes, and with the partial allocation of already existing human resources in schools.
We believe that quality of PE depends on five factors: allocated time, available facilities and equipment, the contents of the PE curriculum, the number of children per teacher, and teacher competencies. Among these factors, we see that PE curriculum and its quality implementation are the determining factors of the PE outcomes. The official PE curriculums form the framework of possible interventions and in some cases can limit the effect of the subject. In the Slovenian case, the PE curriculum underemphasises health-related contents or considers them unintended collateral effects of the development of motor skills and the acquirement of sporting skills. The implementation of the curriculum, in contrast, depends on teachers' teaching competencies; our goal was to see whether specialist PE teachers' competencies have an effect on children's physical fitness and physical development by excluding the other four factors. During their 5 years of study, Slovenian generalist teachers receive between 175 and 355 h of PE teaching-related instruction, while the specialist PE teachers receive over 1,600 h; we attempted to verify whether this discrepancy in time allocated to the development of teaching competencies influences the quality and effectiveness of planning and teaching competencies of both profiles.
In Slovenia, specialist PE teachers are allowed to teach PE in the first 3 years of primary school, but this is currently considered a supplemental programme, requiring additional funding from parents or/and local communities, and the consent of the school board. If the school decides to have a specialist PE teacher teaching in the first 3 years, the classroom teacher has to be present in the class during these lessons. This gave us the opportunity to compare the physical fitness and physical development of the minority of Slovenian children whose PE classes in the first years of school are delivered by specialist PE teachers and of the majority of children who are taught only by generalist teachers.