Girls and Physical Activity

The following item reached us from the WSFF, who argue that schools hold the key to closing gender gap in physical exercise.

A new report by the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation (WSFF) says that girls in the UK are not getting enough exercise – and that schools hold the key to encouraging girls to get active. The report, based on research carried out by the Institute of Youth Sport at Loughborough University, shows that half of all girls (51%) are put off physical activity by their experiences of school sport and PE.

Official figures show that just 12% of 14 year old girls are reaching the recommended levels of physical activity – half the number of boys at the same age. This is despite three quarters (74%) of girls saying they would like to be more active.

As part of the research, a survey asked 1,500 school children about their attitudes to fitness and sport. It found that:

  • Half of all girls (51%) are put off physical activity by their experiences of school sport and PE.
  • 45% of girls say “sport is too competitive” and more than half think boys enjoy competitive sport more than girls.
  • Over half of all boys and girls agree that “there are more opportunities for boys to succeed in sport than girls.”
  • Half of the girls surveyed (48%) say that getting sweaty is “not feminine.”
  • Nearly a third of boys think that girls who are sporty are not very feminine.
  • Of the least active girls, 46% say that they don’t like the activities they get to do in PE compared to 26% of the most active.
  • 43% of girls agree that “there aren’t many sporting role models for girls.”

The report also highlights the gender gap that emerges between girls and boys as they grow up. In Year Four of primary school, girls and boys are doing similar levels of physical activity. However, by Year Six girls are doing considerably less exercise than boys – a gap that widens as girls reach Year Nine of secondary school.

WSFF is writing to every head teacher and head of PE today (over 4,000 teachers), offering them practical guidance on making PE and school sport more appealing to girls, and encouraging all schools to aim for 100% pupil participation. The guidance, developed in partnership with the Youth Sport Trust, recognises that some schools and teachers are already doing this, but what is currently best practise needs to become common practise. WSFF wants every school to help motivate and inspire girls to ‘get active and stay active’ by offering alternative activities, such as dance or martial arts alongside traditional school sports like hockey and netball, to motivate girls to not only enjoy PE and sport in schools, but to adopt a more active lifestyle.

Physical inactivity among girls is associated with a range of outcomes from obesity and low self-esteem to poor educational attainment. The report also highlights the importance of school sport in preventing an obesity crisis in the UK. British women are currently the most obese in Europe and the UK falls behind the OECD average for physical activity among 11-15 year olds.

The report makes a series of recommendations on how to help girls enjoy being active:

  • Schools should work with leaders in the field to ensure best practice becomes common practice.
  • Performance against the Government’s recommended levels of physical activity for children should be more rigorously monitored within and outside the school environment
  • Education authorities and schools should recognise the way in which current provision is failing girls and develop policies and strategies specifically to redress this.
  • Choice in physical activity is crucial and schools should seek the views of pupils on which activities they are likely to participate in e.g. single-sex sporting choices or non-competitive classes like dance or martial arts.
  • Schools should set their own targets and establish clear and public aspirations for 100% pupil participation.
  • Schools should celebrate higher levels of participation as well as success in competitive sports. Initiatives like the Government’s School Games are a great opportunity to encourage young people to enjoy the benefits of playing sport. However, more needs to be done by individual schools to make sure that a range of activities are on offer.

Sue Tibballs, Chief Executive of WSFF, said:

“It is well-known that school children are less active than they should be. This problem is particularly severe for girls. Our research shows that PE and school sport is actually putting the majority of girls off being active, even though three-quarters of girls are keen to do more exercise.

“We need schools and the Government to urgently address this issue, and create policies that will keep our children fit and healthy. The priority needs to be getting all children active not just focusing on the sporty ones.

“We simply cannot afford to keep ignoring the evidence that school sport plays a key role in shaping attitudes to health and fitness. Some schools are leading the way in delivering exciting and inclusive PE lessons, but there is still a great deal to be done. And, with sport front of mind in 2012, now is the ideal time to do it.”

Baroness Sue Campbell, Chair at the Youth Sport Trust said:

“When it comes to PE there are many barriers that can make girls fearful of PE – everything from lacking the confidence to take part through to being extremely body conscious. Schools that deliver PE well recognise these challenges offer a wider variety of sports and physical activity that make girls feel included and encourages them to get involved. We would like to see all schools take this approach.”

On the basis of this report, the WSFF is launching a schools toolkit which provides ideas and solutions for schools.

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