BLOG: Why we need to ensure all girls have a sporting start in life

Ali Oliver discusses the barriers that girls are facing in physical activity and sport - following recent research through the Girls Active programme - and how YST will stop girls from missing out.

I was fortunate enough to have a brilliant PE and school sport experience as a child – I wasn’t particularly talented at any specific sport, but just loved being outside, and the way running about and playing games made me feel physically and psychologically.

My teachers were equally passionate about both competitive sport, and ensuring that every girl enjoyed taking part. I distinctly remember being involved in after school clubs with girls who were clearly destined for greatness in sport, as well as those who simply wanted to have some fun - in fact in years 10 and 11 (4th and 5th year in my day) - we had a ‘games’ option. It was way before GCSE PE was introduced and it was done through a mixed group of girls where they we were introduced to sports for life like fencing, sailing and golf. There’s no doubt this experience shaped my own practice years later when I qualified as a PE teacher, and today I want to ensure that all girls and young women have the same sporting start in life that I did!

This month we have been hearing from some of our Girls Active leaders and award winners and their own personal experiences alongside our research findings into girls’ and boys’ experience of physical activity and PE in secondary schools. One of the statistics that really moved me was that less than a third of 14 to 16-year-old girls said they like physical activity: what is so upsetting about this statistic is that when compared to what boys this age said – almost half of them stated they did like physical activity and sport.

What are the barriers stopping girls from getting active?

While we already know that girls are not doing as much physical activity as boys, it has been hugely insightful to hear from 21,000 girls in secondary schools across the UK about what exactly it is that is stopping them from taking part. Our mission at the Youth Sport Trust is to ensure that every young person – regardless of age, gender or ability – has access to high-quality physical education and can enjoy the benefits physical activity brings to their physical, social and emotional, wellbeing as well as positively supporting their ability to achieve in the classroom.

We work to find solutions which remove barriers to participation, and through programmes like Girls Active our aim is to help schools and girls themselves break them down.

So why is it that so many young girls are letting a lack of confidence and the views of others stop them from enjoying PE, sport and physical activity? Through Girls Active, we aim to get 100,000 more girls active by 2018. We believe we can help girls to overcome a lack of confidence and appetite by listening and empowering.

How do we change the record?

Through the Girls Active programme, we are empowering girls through leadership and consultation, ensuring they have the confidence, enthusiasm and leadership skills they need to make a change to their own physical activity levels and those of their peers. The programme inspires girls to develop a love of PE, sport and physical activity and supports them to encourage their friends to be part of the Girls Active movement.

If there are six key recommendations I can make to schools when thinking about how they can really make a difference to how girls perceive physical activity in and out of school it is this:

1. Make PE and Sport relevant to girls’ lives; Girls will have different motives for taking part, whether it’s being with friends, having fun, or developing new skills.  Helping each girl see a purpose in participating will increase the value they place upon it.

2. Empower girls through involving them in design and delivery of PE and physical activities; involving and consulting with girls at every opportunity will increase their commitment and interest. Ensuring that their opinion is heard and valued is as important as any action you may take.

3.  Develop role models for the future; develop girls as positive influencers and advocates with their peer group, promote a diverse range of role models, not just elite sportswomen.

4. Place developing self-confidence at the heart of PE and sport; consider ways to create an environment that enhances girls’ confidence in their skills and body image

5. Recognise the power of friends to drive progress; friends are a powerful influence for girls’ so let’s use them as a force for good!

6. Take a long-term approach to engaging girls; sustainable change requires planning and commitment. Consider ways for your school to develop a culture that supports, values, and celebrates girls’ participation as an important part of school life.

In 2018, we plan to further our mission to get more girls active by working with 250 schools in England.  We will deliver the Girls Active programme in 50 new secondary schools and reach a further 200 schools through our Girls Active in Transition programme, a collaboration between primary and secondary schools.

During transition, research demonstrates that disruption to friendship groups, along with declining body confidence can affect participation levels in sport and physical activity. Our aim through this collaborative approach is to develop positive experiences through PE, sport and physical activity and thereby aim to address some of the barriers girls experience at this critical time. 

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