Lionesses’ legacy at risk as school PE fails girls, experts warn

·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA</span>
Photograph: Neil Hall/EPA

Twelve years of Tory government have had a disastrous impact on girls’ sport in schools, experts have said, warning that last weekend’s women’s Euro victory will be squandered unless drastic action is taken.

In the past 10 years, 42,000 hours of PE lessons have been lost in secondaries – with girls the most affected – and the situation is getting worse, according to the Youth Sport Trust.

Calling for a “root and branch review” of how PE is taught, experts told the Observer the subject is being “marginalised” and the gender gap is already evident by the age of seven – when girls are a year behind boys on “physical literacy”, the development of basic movement and sport skills. By the time they start secondary at 11, the gap is even wider. Girls’ activity also varies along racial lines.

The intervention comes a week after the England women’s football team made history to become European champions, beating eight-time holders Germany in extra-time.

In the days since, the government refused to commit to equal access to football in schools, where the sport is only available to 63% of girls.

The Lionesses responded with an open letter to Conservative leadership contenders Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, calling on them to offer football to all girls, guarantee a minimum two hours a week of PE and to invest in female PE teachers so that “young girls can flourish”.

Goalkeeper Mary Earps said football “absolutely should be on the curriculum” to ensure girls have access.

The Lionesses’ captain, Leah Williamson, carries the Women’s Euro 2022 trophy at Wembley
The Lionesses’ captain, Leah Williamson, carries the Women’s Euro 2022 trophy at Wembley. Photograph: Harriet Lander/Getty Images

Labour accused the Tories of “failing our children” and “capping” the Lionesses’ ambition to inspire a generation of young girls.

Wilson Frimpong, who is joint network manager of the PE and Schools Sports Network in Southwark, which works with about 100 schools, said disparities start in key stage one. “By the age of seven the girls are a year behind [boys] in terms of their physical literacy … that’s just the fact.”

With girls already “playing catchup” when they reach year three, physical activity in playgrounds is dominated by boys, he said, and by secondary school girls are less likely to play any sport – let alone football.

Issues with girls’ sport go back to 2010, he said, when Michael Gove, then education secretary, scrapped Labour’s School Sport Partnerships.

In 2013, the Conservatives introduced the PE and Sport Premium, currently providing £320m a year to primary schools, but Frimpong said the scheme, which leaves spending decisions to headteachers often with no specialist knowledge, is “flawed”. Money that could have been spent on a girls’ football club or taking girls to a local competition was wasted through schools paying unqualified coaches or spending it on other things, such as photocopying.

“You get very few deep-dive Ofsted inspections that look into PE and expenditure around the premium to any degree, so schools are pretty much having a free hit on this money,” Frimpong said.

Without a long-term vision from the government and funding, the same conversations following the Euros would be continuing in three years’ time. Calling on the government to “take ownership” of the issue, he called for PE to be made a core subject, proper training for primary school teachers – typically they spend just six hours on PE in initial teacher training – and support from specialists as well as targets.

Ed Cope, a lecturer in sports coaching at Loughborough University, lead researcher on a three-year-study with the FA to increase female participation in football in schools and giving girls better access to sport, said there are “deep-rooted societal issues that must be addressed”.

“It requires for me a root and branch review of how all of that works,” he said. “Right through from how teachers are educated around physical education. Are they given the appropriate education and training to be able to offer that immersive enjoyable experience that’s required?”

Team practice at a girls’ football club
Team practice at a girls’ football club. The sport is available to only 63% of girls in schools. Photograph: Caia Image/Getty Images

Like the Lionesses, whose starting 11 were white, diversity issues filter through girls’ sport, he said, and role models in coaching and teaching staff were vital. “We know that in coaching, representation of women in general is incredibly low and it’s even lower still when we start talking about the diversity of those women coaching.”

Sport England’s most recent Active Lives report, from December, found 49% of white British girls do an average of 60-plus minutes of exercise a day, compared to 38% of black girls.

Ali Oliver, CEO of the Youth Sport Trust, said gender inequality in school sport is linked to the shrinking status of PE as schools face increased accountability in subjects such as English, maths and science.

She said it is especially a problem in secondary schools, which are not eligible for the PE and Sport Premium. Girls’ perceptions of whether they see themselves as “sporty” or “active” are developed as early as years four and five, she said, adding that by secondary the gap in participation between boys and girls “really opens up”.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, told the Observer: “Again, the Conservatives are failing our children. They have narrowed the curriculum, pushed experienced, qualified teachers out and neglected children’s development as well as their learning.”

Labour is calling for an “equal access guarantee” for every school sport and has pledged to introduce a children’s recovery plan which would provide after-school clubs for all children and expand access to sport.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “We want to build on the success of the Lionesses in the Women’s Euro 2022, which will inspire a generation of girls to get involved with sport.

“The National Curriculum for PE in schools does not differentiate in relation to sex and we want to see the FA’s ambition to have 90% of schools offering football to both boys and girls by 2024 become a reality.”

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