Michael Prestage visits a school that is keen to disprove the idea that girls do not like games
The straggle of girls finishing a cross-country run merely confirms the view taken by Sarah Hetenyi, head of girls' PE at Priory community school, Weston-super-Mare: levels of fitness among young people, particularly girls, are deplorable.
When she arrived at the school just over a year ago she identified a problem - getting girls involved in sport. It is certainly not a problem unique to Priory. However, unlike other schools, Priory is attempting to do something about it. With the backing of the Sports Council, it is pioneering a scheme to encourage more girls to participate in sport, and to persuade them that sport is not just for boys.
"Fitness levels are poor and girls aren't as motivated as in previous years. Girls don't get much exposure to competitive sport at primary level where PE is constantly being squeezed by the national curriculum," says Ms Hetenyi.
With a budget of nearly Pounds 3,500, Girls and Sport Priority (GASP) hopes to create more opportunities for girls to participate in clubs and competitions both in and out of school. It also seeks to create stronger links between the school and sports clubs in the area.
The initiative includes offering free use of sports facilities to former fifth year (Year 11) pupils who have just left, and to younger pupils from Years 5 and 6 in Priory's partner primary schools. For the younger children the school will provide transport.
Girls taking part in the scheme receive a GASP membership card and will receive certificates and awards for achievement. It is also hoped to hold half-term sports camps for hockey and netball. The school has planned trips to the Wimbledon tennis tournament and hockey internationals.
Ron Richards, deputy head, says: "It was decided to target the Year 7 girls to enthuse them into sport. Hopefully they will take this idea with them throughout all their secondary education and beyond." He says the overall aim is to encourage girls to think about sport and leisure as something they can do in their free time, not just while at school.
Originally it was hoped that 50 per cent of the girls would sign up for the project. So far 80 of the 100 girls in the year are involved. The big question, as Ms Hetenyi recognises, is how many will stay with it.
The school has chosen to focus on four games: hockey, badminton, tennis and netball. These are sports where there is a strong structure at the school - there is a professional tennis coach, for example - and where, because of its community role, there are links with local clubs.
The school already has a community sports development co-ordinator, Adrian Bowen, and the project is able to build on his work with clubs and primary schools.
A Pounds 2,500 grant from the Sports Council funded a survey by Bath University into what the community wants. As a result, Priory now hires its facilities to 35 different sports clubs and works closely with them.
"We have to overcome the perception that sport is a male-dominated activity and recognise there are far more opportunities for boys. Girls often feel that sport is somehow not a feminine thing to do," says Mr Richards.
Vicki Bull has signed up for GASP and will be playing hockey and netball. She had played netball before but decided to try hockey after hearing a talk at the school from a member of the local hockey club.
"Hockey sounded like fun and getting involved in sport is something to do in my spare time. I hope to keep going with it. Most of my friends are having a go," she says.
Sport is also one of Lauren Ebblewhite's main hobbies. She has joined GASP and has signed up for hockey, netball and badminton, as well as doing trampolining. "I'm good at sport and I enjoy it," she says.
Natalie Beckerman, regional development officer with the Sports Council South West Region, says the council is working with Priory to come up with some kind of model for developing sport for girls in schools.
She says the problems at the Priory are not unusual; it is hoped some of them can be solved with GASP. "I think the school has come up with a very sound scheme and we will be monitoring its progress."
One sign of the success of GASP has already manifested itself. "The boys are already complaining that they are missing out and it isn't fair," says Mr Richards.