Sarah French sees how one college is overcoming girls' antipathy to sport
Visitors to Sedgefield Community College are left in no doubt as to the school's sporting credentials. A Sportmark Gold Award recognising its "outstanding commitment to promoting the benefits of physical education" is mounted on the reception wall next to a framed certificate of distinction for after-school activities.
Next to them, pictures of students playing football and hockey take centre stage in a photomontage commemorating the visit by President Bush to Prime Minister Tony Blair's County Durham constituency in which the college lies.
The final certificate is for Innovation in the Curriculum from Girls in Sport which was presented to the school by the women's kayaking world champion, Anna Hemmings. The scheme is led by the Youth Sport Trust and Nike and aims to improve girls' PE at secondary school.
The award recognises the transformation in sport by girls at Sedgefield, fulfilling a pledge which was part of the college's application for specialist sporting status, which it achieved two and a half years ago.
An Ofsted inspection at Sedgefield had identified a gulf between the number of boys and girls doing sport, and a questionnaire confirmed the low interest in PE among girls.
The first step was to establish why girls were put off. Nicola Bage, who was given the new job of head of girls' PE, says: "We found that girls just didn't want to be active. They didn't see getting hot and sweaty on a lunchtime as a cool thing to do. They were more worried about messing up their hair."
In a mixed comprehensive, there were other reasons. "If the girls went out on the sports field they'd know that boys would be watching. They didn't want to give boys the opportunity to laugh at them," says Nicola Bage.
As girls got older and became more fashion-conscious, they also complained about having to wear school gym kit and moaned about the less-than-pristine changing rooms.
The Girls in Sport scheme invited schools to send staff and pupils to workshops and thus far 66 per cent of secondary schools in England have taken part.
Sedgefield teachers came away with ideas that could easily be implemented, such as relaxing the uniform rules and painting the girls' changing-room lilac. Posters of female role models such as Denise Lewis went on the walls, while a noticeboard was filled with information about careers in sport and contact numbers for local clubs.
Meanwhile, the range of sports offered increased dramatically, with the appointment of two other full-time female teachers, Sarah Hodges and Helen Brown. There is less emphasis on traditional team games, but football is offered in three age groups and netball teams from Years 7 to 11. Girls can try trampolining, step aerobics, dance, badminton, dodge ball, cricket and tai-bo, a non-contact marshal art with kicks and punches set to music.
Girls' teams represent the college at gymnastics festivals and aerobics competitions and there are trips to sporting events. A female fitness instructor teaches four nights a week and girls-only classes are held during lunch and after school.
On top of the practical steps, a more fundamental change has taken place.
Nicola Bage says: "We've changed our teaching style a lot. We ask them what they enjoy doing and what they don't like and we try to be as approachable as possible."
The changes are already reaping rewards. The college's sport week, which offered different activities every day during lunch and breaks, attracted 120 girls. Sport co-ordinator Sarah Hodges says: "Previously we would have seen only the hardcore 15 to 25 girls joining in. We've started to get different girls into clubs and they come more for enjoyment and participation now than competition."
The changes have been appreciated by 14-year-old Becky Sinclair. She says:
"It's nice to try different things for a change and to have more variety.
We get to do things we wouldn't have a chance to do out of school." And 13-year-old Samantha Jones says: "When I started here I expected normal PE lessons, but we do a lot more than I imagined we would."
Pupil involvement will be at the heart of future developments. Each tutor group has a representative on the school sports council which meets once a month with PE staff to discuss new activities.
Donna Tipping, spokeswoman for the Youth Sport Trust, says innovations such as these nationally are making a big difference: "Schools are becoming more creative with the initiatives they're introducing. And of the 2,000 schools that have done the workshops, 83 per cent have seen an increase in girls taking part in sport after school or in PE lessons."
Youth Sport Trust
Tel: 01509 226646
Email: email@example.com www.youthsporttrust.org