AN experiment which puts PE at the centre of school life appears to improve academic results, according to experts.

Increased academic scores and improved behaviour are just two of the results of the scheme in County Durham.

Two unidentified primary schools are taking part in the project, which could have important implications for national policy.

The Government is keen to promote more physical activity in primary schools to combat an epidemic of obesity.

A recently released 20-year Government strategy aimed at combating Britain's growing "couch potato" culture, claimed that inactivity was linked to 54,000 premature deaths a year at the cost of £2bn to the taxpayer.

It also unveiled a Government goal that 75 per cent of school- children should receive two hours of exercise a week by 2006.

Full results of the County Durham experiment will not be known until summer, but organisers say the early signs are very promising.

The project suggests that as well as improving levels of fitness, placing more emphasis on PE has had positive spin-offs in the classroom.

Dr Peter Warburton, director of sport at Durham University, who is supervising sports students carrying out the study, has conducted research for the past seven years which suggests that fitness levels in primary schools are slowly declining.

Dr Warburton believes that the new trial could help PE to be given a more central role in primary schools.

He said: "We are working with two primary schools where the children, staff and parents are all on board.

"PE is the medium through which all the children at these two schools are being taught. There is an overlap into other subjects."

While the prime reason for linking up with the two schools is to promote physical activity, there are possible spin-offs into broader areas.

"In the long run, we are very interested in whether academic results and behaviour are affected. We will have the answers in June, and I suspect it is going to be very positive," he said.

Students from the university's sports department are also working with more than a dozen primary schools in the Peterlee and east Durham area to promote sport and PE.

"It is having a massive impact on those schools," said Dr Warburton.

The sports specialist has been impressed at the apparent success of the UK's first so-called "fat camp" run by Leeds Metropolitan University.

The camp, which enrolled a number of North-East children this summer, claims that it can help obese children lose weight and regain fitness.

Dr Warburton believes that more centres run on similar lines could be beneficial.