Changing the game for girls Women's Sport and Fitness Foundation (2012)

Over half of secondary girls say that “girls are put off sport and physical activity because of their experiences of school sport and PE”

This report offers a rare opportunity to hear the voices of girls themselves and reveals their attitudes to fitness and sport more than any previous research. It shows that a gender gap in participation begins in the later years of primary school, and then continues to widen at secondary school with years 8 and as 9 emerging key drop out points.

The reasons girls disengage are many. Families are shown to have the greatest influence, both in terms of role-modelling but also practical facilitation. However, this research shows that girls’ activity can be inhibited by anxious parents who are setting more stringent rules concerning outdoor play for their daughters than their sons. Friends are also influential, particularly as children get older, and girls are more influenced by their friends than boys.

Closely connected to friendship is the degree to which social norms around being female and feminine are still affecting girls’ attitudes and behaviour. Notably, being ‘sporty’ is still widely seen as a masculine trait. While ‘sporty’ boys are valued and admired by their peers, ‘sporty girls’ are not, and can be viewed negatively.

Meanwhile, being feminine largely equates to looking attractive. These social norms are a powerful influence and pose a challenge for traditional ways of delivering PE and school sport. While some schools have focused on these challenges, and been innovative in their response, this research shows that many girls are actually put off being active by their experiences in PE and school sport. A large number feel that too much PE and school sport is still focused on traditional competitive sport, and attention reserved for the sporty and talented.

This research shows that this approach is working for a minority of girls – the ‘sporty’ girls. But it is a huge turn-off for the majority and in particular for the least active who are most at risk. But these girls want to be active – and they know what would help them. They would like a greater choice of activities; they want to be able to take part in girl-only groups away from the gaze of boys; they want to be with their friends and have fun while exercising; they want to feel comfortable in what they wear and feel encouraged and rewarded for their efforts. The toolkit published with this report gives wide-ranging advice for making PE and school sport more inclusive, and references case studies from the many schools and PE staff that are already getting it right.

What we now need to do is make what is currently best practice into common practice. This research represents a clear challenge to everyone involved in education, from Government ministers to school Heads to PE staff. While traditional sport remains the focus of policy and delivery, the critically low participation of girls – and large numbers of boys – is set to continue.

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