Who says girls don't like PE?

9th September 2011 at 01:00
Research shows they shy away from sport and other physical activities, but initiatives in Scotland are finding their alienation from the subject is far from inevitable, as Henry Hepburn reports

The evidence is stark: most teenage girls do not like sport, PE or physical activity. The most recent national statistics show that only 41 per cent of girls aged 13-15 in Scotland meet the target of an hour's physical activity a day, compared with 70 per cent of boys.

But that is not the whole picture. Projects throughout the country are proving that adolescent girls will embrace an active lifestyle - provided they are not alienated by PE.

Physical activity invariably dips when children hit their teens, international research shows, but the trend is pronounced among Scottish girls. While the country's boys are doing fine in European terms, a recent survey put girls in the bottom third of EU countries.

Last year a national summit was held to address the problem, and NHS Scotland senior health improvement officer Niamh Martin spelled out that:

- teenage girls are deeply concerned with how they look, so should be shown how physical activity can make them feel and look better;

- when girls feel watched in PE, physical activity is encumbered with negative associations;

- the importance a school places on sport is crucial - if girls are not asked to do PE in fourth year, they will not value physical activity as highly;

- girls are often uncomfortable with the PE environment rather than an activity itself;

- teenage girls do not like being told what to do - not to give them ownership is to set up a physical activity programme for failure.

These findings were already familiar territory for many in the field. The Fit for Girls initiative has been providing a national response to girls' concerns since 2008, helping 91 per cent of Scottish secondary schools to produce three-year plans and giving them each pound;700. In February came an interim report into the Sportscotland and Youth Sports Trust project: it found that 69 per cent of teachers and 73 per cent of Active Schools staff who attended Fit for Girls training reported increased participation of girls in PE, sport and physical activity.

Fit for Girls has had a "huge" impact on girls' participation at Midlothian's Newbattle Community High, said PE principal teacher Bob Foley. Innovations include an all-girls Standard grade group - built around dance, hockey and netball - and the introduction of a sociable activity, walking, into core S3-4.

Fit for Girls is not a lone project; it is part of a growing movement. At an international sports conference in Hamilton last month, a precursor to the International Children's Games in Lanarkshire, several speakers revealed what they were doing.

Jo Swinson, East Dunbartonshire MP and a rising Liberal Democrat star, spoke about the Campaign for Body Confidence which she co-founded about two years ago, driven by statistics such as the following from Girl Guiding UK: 47 per cent of girls think the pressure to look attractive is the worst part of being female.

Ms Swinson, whose recent complaints about airbrushed L'Oreal adverts featuring actress Julia Roberts and model Christy Turlington led to their being banned, wants girls to concentrate on "what the body can do rather than how it looks" - which largely means turning them on to sport.

Preaching will not make this happen, as Lauren McKechnie knows well. The South Lanarkshire Leisure and Culture girls' development officer told the conference it was a waste of breath to hector teenage girls about the scientifically-proven benefits of a healthy diet, coronary heart disease, and how getting sporty could save taxpayers' money. "The girls don't care," she said.

But she is involved in something that is catching their attention - the Girls Development Programme in Lanarkshire secondary schools. Two keys to success quickly become clear: ask girls what they want; and do not tiptoe around uncomfortable truths.

The programme has been going since October last year, with 1,000 girls. A survey of 405 participants - some overweight, some underweight - has suggested that three-quarters are on their way to a healthy weight.

The first step is to measure the girls' body mass index, or BMI, a move that left some teachers concerned about stigmatisation. But, as Ms McKechnie underlines, "If you don't measure it, you can't manage it".

Hamilton Grammar pupil Eilidh Mitchell, 14, was "scared" about being weighed, in case she was heavier than her peers. "When it turned out around the same as everyone else, it made me feel much better."

Fellow Hamilton Grammar pupil Kayleigh Cowley never used to like PE: "I was not interested in what the teacher was trying to get me to do." That typically meant football and basketball, and she was always frightened of making the crucial mistake that would lose her team the game.

The Girls Development Programme has alternative classes for girls during core PE, like yoga or fitness training. "In the gym you feel like you're doing it for yourself and trying to get fit, not for the purpose of trying to beat someone," Kayleigh said.

This is not about giving girls an easy ride but taking into account their sensitivities, insists Eilidh: "Sometimes people can underestimate how difficult it is to be a teenage girl."

Asking girls what they want from PE has been crucial to the programme's success, said Jonathan Cavana, NHS Lanarkshire's child healthy weight manager: "Without buy-in, you're really just giving them information."

Kay Gibson cannot underline enough the importance of asking girls what stops them enjoying PE. Mrs Gibson chaired one of Education Secretary Michael Russell's "excellence groups" - on PE, physical activity and sport - and is a Dumfries and Galloway Council education officer specialising in health and well-being. When S2 girls in the authority's pilot Fit for Girls school, Stranraer Academy, were asked what they thought of PE, the answers led to fundamental changes.

The girls wanted better changing rooms and some single-sex PE, especially for swimming. "The boys generally changed faster than the girls and were sitting at the edge of the pool waiting for the girls to appear - they had to walk in past the boys before getting into the water," said Mrs Gibson. "We ask girls to wear PE kit and run around at a time when they feel the most self-conscious about their bodies."

Girls wanted a better choice of activities, with many turned off by the competitive nature of sport. "They tend to prefer the social aspects of physical activity - having fun and making friends," said Mrs Gibson.

Things started to change: a teacher started an after-school girls' club; there were tasters of kickboxing, fitball and step aerobics; beauty treatments were offered as an incentive to regular attendees; girls got longer to change after swimming if they worked hard; notice boards had pictures of girls playing sport; the changing rooms were revamped by the girls.

Very few girls now bring notes from home to excuse them from PE, and the trend is spreading. All 16 local secondary schools have action plans to increase girls' participation; 25 out of 105 primaries schedule a five or six-week block of Friday afternoons each year for girl-only activities.

In North Lanarkshire the Saturday Sportscene scheme, which works regularly with 1,300 children aged 10-17, has won plaudits for reducing crime rates by opening up sports halls on Saturday nights. But the less-heralded impact on participation rates among girls is impressive, too: girls make up about 45 per cent of participants, with the biggest successes in dance, athletics and badminton - activities which most had never tried before.

"They can enjoy the activity with friends when there is no judgment on skills and abilities, and can spend time refining the sport to the best of their ability," said Eddie Dollochin, sports development and inclusion manager for North Lanarkshire Leisure.

"There is talent that has previously gone untapped - we now have a group of approximately 20 girls in a badminton development group."

The girls' belated discovery of a passion for badminton would come as little surprise to Fit for Girls partnership manager Michelle Livingston.

"There is often a thought that girls don't want to do traditional sports - it's not always the case," she said. A 2010 Fit for Girls survey of 17,853 S2 girls found that the "social context" of PE was a big issue. While teachers often assume many girls are just not into sport, the view from the girls themselves is often very different.

"It's not the activity per se, it's the environment in which it's being delivered," Miss Livingston said.

The phenomenon of "roller derby" - highlighted at last month's conference in Hamilton - draws a bold line under that point. The brash, fast-growing sport, an American import whose profile was raised by the 2009 Drew Barrymore film Whip It, has many players who hated PE.

They include Glasgow Roller Girls player Leigh Viola, 29, or "Scara-Leigh" - like all roller derby players, she has an alter ego.

"If I remember anything of being a teenage girl it's how self-conscious I always felt," she said. "It's different for boys - I remember them showing off in PE and girls worrying about how silly they'd look.

"I was never very good at PE. I have asthma and struggled to keep up. This isn't the case with roller derby, as it's very inclusive. There is a position for everyone - you don't have to be super thin and fast. There is a strong camaraderie between leagues, which I really enjoy."

Teammate "Coco Pox", who is in her mid-30s and grew up in Northern Ireland, said: "Roller derby might be particularly good for teenage girls, as it encourages them to think about themselves as strong, unique women, at a time when they are struggling to reconcile the mutually exclusive desires of fitting in and feeling special, and to learn what their body can do when they are dealing with all its changes.

"When you play sport at school you're always being compared with everyone else and winning or failing on that basis, which generally made me feel a bit shit."

Crucial to changing girls' attitudes about PE is starting early, believes Alan Byrne, principal teacher at South Lanarkshire's Stonelaw High, who last year won the inaugural TES lifetime achievement award for teachers across the UK.

Mr Byrne last month saw talented volleyball players at his school lose by a large margin to opponents at the International Children's Games in Lanarkshire.

"How can you compete against other countries when they have got young people starting from the age of five or six?" he asked, pointing to a pre- school volleyball scheme in Lille, northern France, and Scotland's tendency to "obsess" about one sport - football.

Scotland does not provide enough PE training for primary teachers, Mr Byrne believes, so they lack confidence and tend to concentrate on a handful of team sports which girls are less keen on; by the time girls get to secondary school, attitudes have hardened.

The early-intervention mantra is repeated by Duncan Buchan, a University of the West of Scotland researcher exploring interventions that may reduce the risk of cardio-vascular disease in teenagers.

In a study with a Scottish secondary school, 47 boys volunteered but only 10 girls. "One of the biggest drawbacks for girls was they did not like the fact they were sweating," he said.

It is important to instil healthy physical behaviour at pre-school, he argues, a view backed up by Scottish Government physical activity statistics: even at the ages of two to four, a gender gap has opened up, with 72 per cent of boys reaching recommended activity levels and 67 per cent of girls.

When the World Health Organisation published a review of 108 studies on physical activity in 2005, it noted: "From an early age, many parents, in a range of cultures, treat boys and girls differently and encourage different styles of play in physical activity contexts, most commonly by providing gender-based toys and encouraging girls and boys to engage in gender-stereotyped activities, usually with boys encouraged to play vigorously and girls quietly."

Theresa Campbell is helping to increase confidence in primary schools as programme leader for Glasgow University's postgraduate certificate in primary PE, which has an equivalent course at Edinburgh University.

They have succeeded way beyond initial expectations, with more than 1,000 people signing up since the Government-funded courses began in 2006. Many are now addressing in classrooms the issues that Mrs Campbell flags up, from lack of girl-focused activities such as dance and gymnastics to changing rooms and mandatory PE kit that make "body-conscious" girls feel uncomfortable.

The Government will publish new statistics in a few weeks, which, if the gender gap in physical activity has narrowed, may be an indication that Fit for Girls, the Girls Development programme, Active Schools and primary PE postgraduate courses - among other initiatives - are having the desired effects.

Murray Carnie knows better than most about what girls miss out on if they desert sport. The principal teacher of PE coached the Mintlaw Academy girls' football team that became a source of huge pride in the small Aberdeenshire town, having been Scottish under-18 champions five years in a row and produced Arsenal Ladies' Kim Little, the 2010 Players' Player of the Year in England.

But he cautions that boys' physical activity also drops - from 81 per cent reaching the recommended hour a day at age 11-12 to 70 per cent at 13- 15.

"We must not take our eye off the ball with boys," he said.


Increased participation rates at Edinburgh's Leith Academy are credited largely to a shift in teachers' attitudes.

Teachers take a more sympathetic approach to non-participation; extra support is given to pupils who do not bring in their PE kit.

Girls are allowed to wear comfortable clothing for PE and T-shirts in the swimming pool. There are hairdriers and several mirrors in changing rooms and girls can bring their own hair-straighteners.

A longer changing time after swimming has been introduced and, where possible, pool times scheduled before break, lunch or the end of the day. This encourages participation while minimising late arrivals to other classes.

Girls' classes are matched with female staff, if possible. The Just for Girls exercise club is run by senior girls, and there is girls-only swimming for beginners and black and ethnic-minority girls.

Leith Academy, having drawn up a Fit for Girls action plan and worked closely with an Active School co-ordinator, recognises girls' achievements in the same way as that of boys, on plasma screens, the school intranet and a "Celebrating Success" board. Achievement can include level of skill, co-operation within a team or degree of improvement, allowing staff to pick out unsuspecting pupils.

A new gym and dance studio provides for aerobics, boxercise, dance, floor work and gymnastics. Pupils can choose from a range of activities during core PE sessions. A suggestion box encourages them to suggest new activities and clubs, while links with the Black Diamonds Cheerleaders and Leith Rugby Club have led to greater choice.

Pupils pursuing the Community Sports Leader Award take placements at a primary school and invite its pupils to the PE department, helping transition work.


Angus Council has been one of the most go-ahead local authorities in getting girls active. Recent figures for 2011 show that, while girls made up only 43.3 per cent of attendances at Active Schools sessions nationally, in Angus they were at 49.3 per cent.

The national Fit for Girls programme has resulted in girls being asked more often what they want from PE, explained Ken McKay, PE and sport education development officer; meanwhile, there has been an influx of young female PE teachers.

The forming of more single-sex classes has been one of the most significant changes. Girls are taking charge of after-school sessions, supported by PE staff and volunteers, leading to a number of girls-only clubs.

Dance is strong in most secondaries, thanks in part to the appointment of a part-time dance support officer. S5-6 pupils are trained to become "dance leaders", running sessions with younger secondary pupils and primary schools.

Communication between primary and secondary schools has helped. In one cluster, the Active Schools co-ordinator provides the secondary with the names of all pupils who participated in primary activities; those pupils are targeted in S1 by PE staff to ensure they stay involved.

There is a strong Active Schools programme and more than 200 volunteers, including P7 pupils, trained as "young sport leaders", who help organise lunchtime activities for P1-3 children.

Original headline: Forward moves in bid to boost girls' participation in PE

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