Scoring a winner for equality
Something remarkable has been happening at Flora Stevenson's primary in Edinburgh, and it seems the experience has been finding parallels all over the country. Girls of 10 and 11 whose interest in football appeared to be zero have suddenly been piling into cars for Saturday games all over town, enthusiastically rushing about the field and dissecting the game in minute detail. A few months ago, you wouldn't have persuaded most of them on to the park for love or money.
Few girls turned out for "open to all" mixed training sessions over the years, and gradually their numbers dwindled to zero, intimidated or demoralised, not by the coaches but by the boys behaving, it seems, like boys everywhere - "never passing the ball to us, calling us crap all the time" in one girl's plaintive and colourful description.
The key to change was turned when coaches took a more imaginative approach to "equal opps" than simply clinging to the faith that mixed sessions would work.
Michele Macnab, a parent whose husband David coaches pupils, discussed with the male coaches their concern that the last girl had left the mixed sessions - would there be a different response to girls-only training? So Michele ran two sessions.
More than 20 girls materialised at each session, full of zest. Posh girls you'd never think would be interested in fitba'; giggling girls, nervously tapping the ball a few yards; tough nuts in Hearts and Hibs strips, liberated by their new confidence. "We never realised there was that sort of interest," she recalls. "It became glaringly clear that if it was a girls-only team, we would get many more girls involved."
And that is a pattern repeated all over Edinburgh, Jim Wilson, convener of girls' football for Edinburgh Primary Schools Sports Association, says. Girls' football has grown from a handful of sides playing friendlies to more than 20 teams playing regularly. "It's still quite unusual for girls to be playing in school teams - you get the odd one, and in many cases they're the star player - but on the whole girls don't get the start they need," he says.
"Unfortunately a lot of teams come into the league for a year or two then drop out, which has nothing to do with lack of ethusiasm. It's due to a lack of adults who can take them. Unless someone can carry the team through over several years, the girls' teams sometimes fold. Because of smaller numbers, there are fewer parents than in boys' teams to share the responsibilities."
Nor do most mothers feel skilled enough to coach a game, not even at primary level, not even if (like myself) they have been diehard football fans for decades. Yet a range of Scottish Football Association courses is available for anyone running a school team. "I think schools don't always remember to put forward the person running the girls' team," says Mr Wilson, who teaches at Queensferry primary. "And maybe some women don't fancy going along to a course that's full of young men."
Michele Macnab, who used to play five-a-side for the DHSS, took the "early touches" course last year. Her experience was very positive: "Though there were only four women out of 25, we joined in everything and weren't made to feel inferior in any way."
The explosion of interest from girls in primaries reflects the rise in status of women's football generally in Scotland. Every Premier League club (except it appears Rangers and Celtic . . . why should that be?) now has women's teams that those 10-year- olds can aspire to.
Donna Cheyne of Kilmarnock, the first women's football development officer in Scotland attached to a professional club, has already forged links with primary and secondary schools in Ayrshire and kick-started three after-school soccer centres. Yet it's most heartening to observe the changes that coaches working at grassroots level can achieve by themselves. At a recent penalty kick competition and fun event, with invited Hearts and Hibs players, the Flora Stevenson girls mixed unselfconsciously with the boys, queuing up to test their skills, laughing if they made a mess of something, where a few weeks previously they would have run a mile.
Just as heartening are the boys' reactions. None gave the girls verbal abuse, they applauded the star female penalty taker, and now at school they ask the girls with genuine interest if the team won last Saturday.
The girls' verdict? "We get more respect in the playground. Well, a bit more anyway, sometimes." It seems there is more than one way to equal opportunities. If your school hasn't tried it yet, it might pay dividends.