When it comes to sport in schools, certain things seems to go round in circles. Fifteen years ago, Tony Blair’s government asked school sport coordinators and partnership development managers to find out why teenage girls didn’t do much sport at secondary school, and then do something to turn this around.
The ‘why’ was straightforward. Too much focus on competition, team games, not enough choice, not enough chance to have fun with friends. Over the next ten years or so, school sports partnerships and sports colleges started setting up informal activities, gave girls more options, and even relaxed school uniform requirements.
Then, in 2010, in came a new government, with a mandate to cut public services and a back to basics, sport-centred approach to school sport. Out went the school sports partnerships and sports colleges; in came a focus on proper, competitive, team sports.
The result? More complaints that teenage girls aren’t doing enough sport at secondary school.
Plus ça change…
Last summer, the Commons Culture Media and Sport Watchdog released a report, which said that girls were being put off sport by PE lessons. Two years ago, Loughborough University research carried out for the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) said the same thing.
The MPs want to see imaginative activities – so that’s dance and cycling – and less focus on team sports. The WSFF said it was unacceptable that 31% of 14 year old girls exercised regularly, compared to 50% of boys the same age. The MPs want the government to force schools to take girls’ sport as seriously as they do sport for boys.
John Whittingdale, the MP who chaired the committee recommended more variety and easily accessible activities adapted to girls’ lifestyles. The WSFF complained about 1950s jolly-hockey-sticks PE lessons. Nothing new there, then.
Even those schools that don’t need to be forced to take girls’ sport seriously, face the same problems now as before. The MPs highlighted lifestyle barriers, family responsibilities, and a lack of female role models on the TV as barriers to women playing sport. The 2012 WSFF report found that girls didn’t want to exercise in front of boys, weren’t always confident of their skills, were worried about looking foolish around friends and felt that it was unfeminine to exercise and get all sweaty. The same things were being said five, ten, fifteen years ago.
Listen and learn
This is new, though: according to Chris Wright from the Youth Sport Trust the answer is to listen to girls and put on activities that they tell you they’d like to do.
Wright, who leads the Charity’s Girls Active programme, says that girls themselves know better than anyone, why they do and don’t want to do sport. ‘Let them decide what sort of activity they want to do, how they want to do it and when,’ he says. Wright adds that schools need to talk to girls, discover their motivation for taking part – whether that’s fund raising, friendship or body confidence. ‘We have to fit physical activity into girls’ everyday lives,’ he comments.
Highfields School in Derbyshire is part of the Girls Active pilot programme. Six year eleven girls find out what sort of sport and physical activity their peers want to do and report back to year and whole school representative groups. These groups then make recommendations to the PE department. Based on what the girls have told her, school sport coordinator, Jayne Allen, has set up netball for year seven and eight, cheerleading, football and rugby sessions and a volleyball club for boys and girls. ‘Lower school girls might do a sport because they think they’re good at it,’ she observes. ‘By upper school they’re more interested in social activity with friends.’
Chris Wright adds that it’s difficult to predict what the ideal programme might look like. ‘Different girls in different places with different interests and different motivations will come up with different ideas about the sort of sport and physical activity that they want to do,’ he says.
‘Show girls that sport is relevant to their lives,’ Jayne Allen insists. ‘Many talented girls don’t take qualifications in sport, and then also stop taking part, because they don’t want to be PE teachers or physiotherapists. There are other career pathways out there, more to their liking.’ To demonstrate this, Highfield girls recently visited a fashion designer who specialised in ladies sportswear; journalists, TV presenters, analysts, psychologists, PR and marketing professionals all work in sport.
This isn’t just a schools thing or a sports thing, though. At the end of the day, to use a sports cliché, it’s actually about culture; if British society really wants more girls to do more sport and physical activity, then a bit more profile for the types mentioned above in the media and on TV, would help. So too, would a few less shows where dolled up celebrities argue over boyfriends. And not quite so many tabloid photos of the latest Premiership WAGs.
About The Author
Crispin Andrews is a freelance writer and a former teacher and sports coach. He prefers cats, werewolves and cricket to DIY, staff meetings and reality TV. (crispinandrewsfreelancewriter.com).