Beauty treatments and non-competitive activities are enticing girls to exchange coach-potato lifestyles for regular physical exercise. Jean McLeish reports
The girls at Meldrum Academy have some winning ways of making exercise fun, including a game to work out the name of your future husband. This involves skipping at speed while your friends turn the rope and shout out letters of the alphabet. When you come to a halt, the letter you finish on is the first letter of the name of the man you will marry. Scientifically unsound it may be, but it is good for a laugh when you're 14.
A more formal incentive to encourage fitness was the promise of manicures and beauty treatments for good attendance at their girls-only after-school sports club. Treats like nail varnishes and eye shadows are more popular trophies for some girls than house points or silverware for the sideboard.
Forty per cent of Scottish girls have dropped out of all sport and physical activity by the time they reach 18. Among 11- to 14-year-olds, 83 per cent don't meet the recommended one hour's activity five days a week.
Between 2005 and 2007, a training programme for Active Schools co- ordinators and PE staff was set up as a pilot in 27 Scottish schools to explore ways of reversing this trend. Meldrum Academy was one of the schools in the Girls in Sport and Physical Activity initiative, with investment from Big Lottery and Health Promoting Schools funding a partnership between the schools, the Youth Sport Trust and sportscotland.
In 75 per cent of the schools involved, the average participation rates of girls increased from 18 per cent to 26 per cent. And the Scottish Government has announced the programme is to be rolled out to all girls between 11 and 16 in Scottish secondaries under the banner Fit for Girls.
Five Youth Sport Trust trainers will provide training for teachers and Active Schools co-ordinators, so they can encourage the development of specially tailored activities for girls in and out of school.
Meldrum Academy has already reaped rewards from the pilot. The recently built school opened in 2002 on the outskirts of Oldmeldrum in rural Aberdeenshire. The interior is more like a contemporary art gallery than your average ageing Scottish secondary. No dark and draughty old gyms in here - you can't even smell exercise in this school.
But they're all hard at it, especially members of the Girls Club which was set up during the pilot. Today, members of the after-school fitness club are demonstrating one of their favourite activities - shaking their cheerleaders' pom poms - while others are using skipping ropes to pursue in-depth romantic research.
Fourth-year student Jennifer Young, 15, would not describe herself as sporty but she knows activity is important if she wants to be healthy. "You get heart disease and stuff and you can't do as much when you're older if you're not fit when you're young," she says.
She doesn't enjoy PE and is articulate about the reasons why she's motivated to come along to a girls-only club after school: "I don't like it because it makes you feel self-conscious, because there are always boys running around. You don't really get the chance to take part because they dominate PE in games and stuff.
"In Rounders they grab the ball and run away with it and you don't get the chance to get in and get playing. And in rugby, the boys would always pass to other boys and that would be it, and you would just have to stand on the edge and do nothing.
"The club is good because you get to know everyone and you just feel more comfortable. We've done heaps - fitness, aerobics, basketball, Tai Kwon Do, exercise balls and spinning," she says.
About 60 girls come to the club after school on Thursdays, including some P7s from Meldrum's feeder primaries. Some of them come because they're natural athletes, others have been drawn in by the prospect of fun in an all-girl environment and - let's be frank - eye shadow.
Kelly Craig is a PE teacher at the school and the Active Schools co- ordinator. She organised this programme along with her colleague Kathy Yates, the co-ordinator for the primary sector.
Turn-out for PE is good here, but the girls' take-up of after-school opportunities through the Active Schools programme was disappointing and staff wanted to put that right as part of the pilot project.
The reasons for the poor response are in line with national trends, according to Mrs Craig. "Maybe the activities were competitive and turning girls off. The idea of their body being on show in a mixed setting made them feel they didn't want to, whereas this is a girls-only session," Mrs Craig says.
"Also there is the competitive element. A lot of girls, if they don't have the skills of the team games, are embarrassed and don't want to do it because they think they will look silly and the boys won't pass to them, she adds.
The Girls Club was launched after a questionnaire was circulated to find out what girls liked and disliked about the exercise opportunities on offer. It was promoted widely and girls vote for three favourite activities to do each term and can choose which of these to do each week. A sense of ownership and the chance to choose has boosted enthusiasm.
During the pilot year, incentives were offered to encourage girls to stick with it - so there were visits from a manicurist, a hairdresser and a make-up expert, and treats for those with more than 90 per cent attendance.
Funding for the project helped pay for the treats but when the cash ran out, the girls said they wanted to continue - even without the carrot of nail varnish and eye shadow.
Next term cheerleading, jazz dance and football are on offer and activities that proved popular during the pilot have now become permanent fixtures with satellite clubs in netball and spin cycle.
Third-year Mairi Oliver, 14, doesn't enjoy the competitive element in PE but enjoys the less traditional range of activities offered in the Girls Club. "It's better than PE because it's not competitive and my friends go to it."
Her friends are still skipping in the background, and the laughter's getting louder as they seem to have moved on to discovering the month they're going to marry.
Several of the girls are keen sportswomen and take up every sporting chance on offer. Fourteen-year-old Vanessa Rees enjoys athletics and hockey and likes the all-female environment of the club because it means boys can't take over.
She sees fitness as a lifelong commitment: "It's very important you keep doing it because it makes you feel good and there's a good team spirit in the Girls Club."
Katie Armstrong, another sporty 14-year-old, is a star turn at cartwheels. She says the club is fun and sociable: "I get to do lots of different sports I wouldn't normally do, and I get to meet new people."
Olwen Fraser, head of PE, says the club was popular from the outset: "We noticed the numbers growing very quickly. And we saw that of the pupils who came as primary, a lot of them still come as secondary. It will be interesting to see how many people are still involved in a few years' time.
"They are always quite excited about opportunities and they like coming up to the secondary school. They get to do Tai Kwon Do, trampolining, badminton, spinning - things they're not doing in primary."
Involving the P7 pupils was seen as a way of creating links between primary and secondary and a strategy for getting girls interested before they hit the teenage years, when they would normally lose interest.
Staff had previously struggled to get girls to take part in extra- curricular activities. But the club has now successfully generated interest in a range of activities, including netball. External instructors, recruited to teach disciplines outside the traditional PE curriculum, also motivated girls to join in.
Fifteen-year-old Rebecca Boyd enjoyed the treats and the activities: "We got to choose what we could do. We got professionals in and recently we did Tai Kwon Do. It was great, because it wasn't just teachers telling you what to do, we actually got a real instructor who has done it all," she says.
PE staff acknowledge the benefits of using outside instructors, who bring in fresh expertise and encourage pupils to try new activities which may be on offer, under their instruction, at local community centres. They're also conscious they don't want to stifle competitive spirit or enthusiasm for traditional activities.
"We don't want to disadvantage those who want to do competitive sports. We're trying to offer more choice of individual non-competitive activities as well as competitive activities," explains Mrs Craig.
She says the Girls Club has already had a positive effect. "Netball was popular and has led to a netball club being set up. The girls are now doing an additional hour's activity when they come to netball club.
"We have a spinning club on a Monday after school. The idea is for satellite clubs to start up. A lot of the girls have become more confident and that has a knock-on effect in PE sessions."
Fourth-year pupil Kimberley Smith, 15, says about the club's success: "You get to do sports with your friends and you enjoy it more when it's things you like to do."
Statistics are taken from "Towards Girl Friendly Physical Education", published by the NikeYouth Sport Trust Partnership (2000), and research by the Children and Adolescent Health Research Unit at Edinburgh University (2005).