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PE ‘enjoyment gap’ widens for girls: Why it matters and how we can help
Experts discuss how we can help make sports and physical activity more enjoyable for girls.
Survey finds girls are less likely than boys to enjoy school sports (Alamy/PA)
The number of girls who say they enjoy school PE lessons has dropped over the last six years, new figures suggest.
Less than two in three (64%) female pupils said they liked taking part in PE, compared with 86% of boys, according to the survey by the Youth Sport Trust charity – a drop from 74% of girls in 2016/17.
The PE ‘enjoyment gap’ was even bigger for secondary school students – just 59% of girls in this age range said they enjoy PE.
Nearly 25,000 pupils in England aged seven to 18 were polled by the charity. And 64% of the female respondents said they want to be more active at school but there are barriers getting in their way – including not feeling confident, having their period, being watched by others and worrying about how they look.
Instagram post caption: Our #GirlsActive survey shows that periods hold girls back in PE, sport and physical activity, with 68% of Key Stage 4 girls being concerned about being uncomfortable during their period in PE.
“Let's champion their well-being, nurturing strong minds and strong bodies, because every girl deserves the chance to thrive.”
Ali Oliver, chief executive of the Youth Sport Trust, said: “We must be absolutely committed to understanding the experiences of young women and girls, how these are constantly changing in a complicated world, and be better at working with them to address the barriers they face.
“At a time of unprecedented low levels of social and emotional wellbeing, we know getting things right for girls in PE can be life-changing.”
Listening to girls’ concerns
It’s a topic that strikes a chord with many experts from this field.
“It is so important to listen to girls’ concerns when it comes to the barriers they are experiencing, because we know these barriers are something that can stay with them throughout adolescence and into adulthood,” Vicky Fitzgerald, health improvement lead at health and wellbeing charity Nuffield Health, told the PA news agency.
“Research has suggested that women in particular face more barriers to fitness than men, citing impacts such as a lack of time, motivation and knowledge, as well as caregiving responsibilities. By addressing these concerns from a young age, we are then able to support where needed, identify solutions, or provide alternatives to reignite engagement.”
Sports helps build confidence and social connections (Alamy/PA)
As the Youth Sport Trust highlights, the benefits of sports and PE are far-reaching.
Charlotte Fray, rugby player with Leicester Tigers Women and a sports coach at Leicester Grammar School, agreed: “Sport is massive for confidence and forming lasting friendships. For young girls especially, if they enjoy what they’re doing they are going to have more confidence.
“It’s a great way to remove any stressors from their life and have time to switch off, whilst discovering a love for sports.”
Alex Caird, school games organiser at charitable trust, SASP (the Somerset Activity & Sport Partnership), added: “School sport is an incredibly valuable tool to teach life skills that are transferable from classroom to sporting environments and back again, and it is fundamental that these opportunities are tailored to the young people we aim to impact.”
Caird believes making accessibility part of the culture of PE and sports lessons plays an important part.
“At SASP, we not only empower more students to get involved and feel confident, but also school staff to see the difference physical activity makes to their own teaching confidence, to try new things and seek out further opportunities for their students to flourish and grow,” Caird explained.
“We’re determined to use sport as a vehicle to drive this healthier lifestyle change, as well as build physical activity into a healthy school culture that sees the benefits of holistic experiences for all young people in any activity, not just the ‘traditional’ sporting calendar setup.”
“Education around women’s health also needs to be a priority...”
Fitzgerald meanwhile added: “Education around women’s health also needs to be a priority. An understanding of menstrual cycles and how they impact young girls, confidence/self-esteem concerns, questions around skills or ability – having an understanding of how all of these impacts can affect an individual removes the pressure or fear of them having to explain it.”
The power of role models
Dr Jackie Day-Garner, associate dean of the School of Health, Social Work and Sport at University of Central Lancashire, believes setting positive examples is key.
“An active mother, parent, or teacher in the early years can help to influence positive behaviours around physical activity. And role models such as social media influencers or female athletes could help teenage girls to engage more in sport,” she said.
There are lots of ways to be active (Alamy/PA)
“We’ve already seen the increase in the visibility of female sport on television, with England netballers contesting a World Cup final and the Lionesses winning the Euros and becoming finalists in the World Cup. We’ve also seen prolific sports women wanting to empower girls to play sport. For example, Leah Williamson speaking at the UN assembly about the topic.”
While Fray believes having “different kinds of role models” helps inspire girls to find activities they’ll enjoy.
“Rugby is great for this, as there is so many different shapes and sizes within the game, that everyone can find a role model. Girls can realise they don’t have to fit a certain category to play sport. There are so many different sports out there,” she added.
Widening the options
Fitzgerald believes we also need to show girls from a young age that there are lots of different ways to be active.
“If PE isn’t enjoyable, try to find an alternative which introduces exercise in a less-pressured environment. Programmes such as Nuffield Health’s Move Together is an example,” she said. “These free classes are specifically designed as a solution for the barriers that young girls have cited.
“They are available in local communities and offer a multitude of classes, from Zumba to HIIT, strength training, cardio classes and more, to inspire young girls to find a type of movement they enjoy.”
The choice of activities available in high schools is also important, added Day-Garner.
“There has been too much emphasis on organised sport. It might be more appropriate to look at what activities girls are likely to engage with when they leave school, as women often a re-engage with exercise in their early 30s.
They might join a gym or leisure centre, or participate in classes such as Zumba.”