Girls lose out in PE gender gap

'As adults, we should all be ashamed that...girls disconnect from sport at a young age,' says sports chief

Jonathan Owen

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Painful periods and a lack of confidence, along with pressure of school work, are stopping girls from being as physically active as they should, according to new research released today.

A survey by the Youth Sport Trust and Women In Sport found that while more than eight out of 10 boys and girls understood the importance of being active, only 56 per cent of girls said that physical activity was an important part of their life, compared to 72 per cent of boys.

This “disconnect between attitudes and behaviour” is revealed in the survey of 26,000 pupils from 138 schools, conducted during the past school year.

“As adults, we should all be ashamed that we have allowed a situation to develop in society where girls disconnect from sport at a young age," Ruth Holdaway, chief executive of Women in Sport, said. "Girls are missing out: missing out on the physical health and emotional wellbeing benefits of being active – and missing out on the life skills that sport helps to develop.”

PE problems

Girls are twice as likely (24 per cent) as boys (12 per cent) to cite not being confident as something that stops them taking part in physical activity.

Having a period, not liking being watched and a lack of confidence are cited by more than one in four girls as things that stop them doing PE.

While 27 per cent of girls are unhappy with the way their body looks, only 16 per cent of boys express this point of view.

Competitive PE lessons appeal to 70 per cent of boys but only 50 per cent of girls.

And almost one in four girls cite pressure of school work and low confidence as obstacles to doing sports and other forms of exercise outside of school, whereas fewer than one in seven boys say that these are barriers.

When girls were asked about their attitudes towards PE and school sport, less than half (45 per cent) said that it teaches them skills relevant to their daily life, compared to 60 per cent for boys.

Greater engagement needed

Schools need to make PE and physical activity “relevant to girls’ lives” and take a “long-term approach to engaging girls” according to the research.

It warns: "We know girls are not doing as much physical activity as boys. Girls aged 11-18 years old exercise less regularly and for less time than boys". Just eight per cent of girls do the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day, compared to 16 per cent of boys, says the research.

And getting girls’ views on what kind of PE they want to do is crucial, according to Ali Oliver, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust. “Girls need to be empowered through involving them in design and delivery of PE and physical activities, only by doing this can we change the record and get girls active,” she said.

A Department for Education spokesperson stated: “We want to encourage all young people to get into the healthy habit of playing and enjoying sport – both inside and outside school. We know that many schools are using their primary PE and school sport premium funding to target groups who may traditionally be less active, with 31 per cent of schools reporting that they used their funding to target girls. Across government, we continue to work to promote women’s sport."

The survey was carried out with pupils at schools across England and Northern Ireland taking part in a Girls Active programme.

Design and delivery

The Girls Active programme, developed by the Youth Sport Trust and delivered in partnership with This Girl Can and Women in Sport, involves girls in the design and delivery of PE and physical activity in secondary schools.

So far 50,000 girls have been reached in 200 schools by the programme, which is funded by Sport England.

One such girl is 14-year-old Gracie Rowe, who attends The John Warner School in Hertfordshire.

Gracie, from Hoddesdon, said: “Just the very thought of sport used to make me feel bored and uncomfortable. All my friends hated PE just as much as I did and I didn’t use to want anything to do with sport”.

She added: “Now I’m involved with Girls Active, it makes me feel good mentally and physically – and I am way more confident and happy. I feel empowered now to influence other girls who were like me by showing them that there is no limit to what you can do. It doesn’t matter about your size, age or ability level. Start with what you are comfortable with and push those boundaries”.

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Jonathan Owen

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