A strong case to revamp girls’ PE lessons at school

One of the biggest issues surrounding sports participation is how to get more women playing sport, and the focus invariably lands on the fact that if you get girls interested in sport at school, then they are more likely to continue into adulthood.

But how to make those PE lessons exciting, interesting and engaging to a young female audience?

Tamara Hill-Norton, the founder of Sweaty Betty, said last week that schools have to do more to get girls into PE, and called out the fact that most school PE lessons are dominated by traditionally ‘male’ sports which put young girls off playing.

The Sunday Times reported Hill-Norton as saying that yoga, dance classes and kickboxing should be introduced – as well as more running and cycling – to address the balance.

Hill-Norton, who founded the sports workout brand with her husband Simon in 1998 and sold it to a US company for £300 million earlier this year, said: Sport in schools is not working for enough girls. There is a cookie cutter approach to focusing on competitive team sports and that can be off-putting for many teenage girls.”

Hill-Norton is now chairwoman of trustees for the Sweaty Betty Foundation, a new charity focused on getting girls active, and she suggested that at a lot of top sports organisations, there are men taking decisions about female sport without taking proper guidance from women.

“In the sporting bodies there are a lot of men at the top making the decisions. We need to listen to girls about what they want and that includes the ones who maybe don’t show up all the time.

“We are hearing from girls that they want more activities where they’re all not being judged, and that could be fitness classes or running.”

Sport England’s most recent survey found that 57 per cent of girls in the UK aged 13 to 16 do not do the recommended guideline amount of physical activity. Sport England reported that 51 per cent of boys and 43 per cent of girls were classes as active in 2018-19. Being active is defined as taking part in sport and physical activity for an average of 60 minutes or more every day.

Further, Sport England also reported that only 34 per cent of girls aged 13 to 16 “strongly agreed” that they enjoyed PE compared with 56 per cent of boys. And a third of girls at that age said they had not found any exercise that they actually enjoyed.

Hill-Norton told The Sunday Times that she sympathised with these girls because, while she played team sports at school she said she gave them up as soon as she could and took part in running and fitness classes instead.

“I gravitated towards things I enjoyed,” Hill-Norton said. “At my daughters’ [she has a 21 and 18 year-old daughter as well as a 15-year-old son] school they had a good uptake for classes like kickboxing, dancing and spinning. You’re in a room with great music and they loved it.”

Nicola Marshall, director of the Sweaty Betty Foundation, told The Sunday Times how the company is now sending fitness instructors into schools in London, Leeds and Glasgow to teach pilates, barre, boxing, running and hip-hop. “We spend a huge amount of time encouraging girls to do hockey, netball, athletics and yet adult women do running, yoga and cycling.

“We are trying to think about how girls can feel confident to go to a zumba class on their own, for example.

“I don’t know many women who regularly take part in gymnastics, rounders, netball or hockey.”

The Sunday Times cited a report by Youth Sport Trust that found periods, low confidence and self-consciousness at being watched were the main barriers to girls enjoying school sport and Ali Oliver, the organisation’s chief executive, said: “We need to engage young women in a conversation about what they do and don’t like about PE, and what would make it more enjoyable.”

It is a compelling argument, and just from Sportside’s unscientific poll of four 12-year old girls (my daughter and her friends) it would seem that it would be a popular move if the weekly PE session became a dance class or something similar. 

Being active must be fun first, before it becomes competitive and so again, we return to last week’s theme of whether providing more sport for people to play will get the nation more active, or will a more active nation in turn play more sport? 

We think Hill-Norton has a strong point – make ‘getting active’ more fun and less ‘traditionally sporty’ and the numbers will grow. And once the numbers of girls getting more active grows, so the numbers of those playing sports will increase.

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