The lionesses’ legacy is in jeopardy as girls fail in school, experts warn Sports

Twelve years of Tory rule are having a devastating impact on girls’ sport in schools, experts say, warning that victory at last weekend’s European Championships will be in jeopardy unless drastic action is taken.

In the last 10 years, 42,000 hours of physical education in secondary schools have been lost – with girls hit hardest – and the situation is getting worse, according to the Youth Sport Trust.

Experts called for a “fundamental review” of the way PE is taught observer the subject is “marginalized” and the gender gap is already evident at the age of seven – when girls are a year behind boys in physical literacy, the development of basic movement and sports skills. By the time they enter secondary school at 11, the gap is even greater. Girls’ activity also varies along racial lines.

The intervention comes a week after the England women’s football team made history by becoming European champions, beating eight-time holders Germany in extra time.

In the days that followed, the government refused to push for equal access to football in schools, where the sport is only accessible to 63% of girls.

The Lionesses responded with an open letter to Conservative leadership candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, urging them to offer all girls soccer, guarantee at least two hours of sport a week and invest in female physical education teachers so “young girls can thrive”.

Goalkeeper Mary Earps said football “absolutely needs to be on the curriculum” to ensure girls have access.

Lioness captain Leah Williamson carries the Women's Euro 2022 Trophy at Wembley
Lioness captain Leah Williamson carries the Women’s Euro 2022 Trophy at Wembley. Photo: Harriet Lander/Getty Images

Labor accused the Tories of “abandoning our children” and “capping” the Lionesses’ ambition to inspire a generation of young girls.

Wilson Frimpong, joint network manager of Southwark’s PE and Schools Sports Network, which works with around 100 schools, said the differences start at the first key stage. “By the age of seven, the girls are a year behind [boys] in terms of their physical education… that’s just the fact.”

With girls already ‘catching up’ by the time they reach third grade, physical activity in playgrounds is dominated by boys, he said, and sports are less common among girls in secondary school – let alone football.

Troubles with girls’ sport date back to 2010, he said, when Michael Gove, then Education Secretary, scrapped Labour’s School Sport Partnerships.

In 2013, the Conservatives introduced the PE and Sport Bonus, which currently gives primary schools £320m a year, but Frimpong said the scheme, which often leaves spending decisions to school leaders without expertise, was “flawed”. Money that could have been spent on a girls’ soccer club or getting girls to a local competition was wasted with schools paying unqualified coaches or spending on other things, such as photocopies.

“You get very few deep-dive Ofsted inspections that deal in any way with PE and spending around the bounty, so the schools pretty much have a free swipe at that money,” Frimpong said.

Without a long-term vision from the government and funding, the same post-euro talks would continue in three years. He called on the government to “take the issue in hand” and called for physical education to be made a core subject, proper training for primary school teachers – typically they only spend six hours on physical education in teacher education – and also support from specialists as targets.

Ed Cope, lecturer in sports coaching at Loughborough University, lead researcher of a three-year study with the FA to increase women’s participation in football in schools and give girls better access to the sport, said there were “rooted societal issues that need to be addressed”.

“It requires a thorough review for me of how this all works,” he said. “From the way teachers are trained around physical education. Do they have the appropriate education and training to provide the immersive and enjoyable experience required?”

Team training in a girls soccer club
Team training in a girls soccer club. Sport is only open to 63% of girls in schools. Photo: Caia Image/Getty Images

As with the Lionesses, whose starting XI was white, diversity issues seep through girls’ sport, he said, and role models on the coaching and teaching staff are crucial. “We know that the representation of women in coaching in general is incredibly low, and it’s even lower when we start talking about the diversity of these female coaches.”

Sport England’s latest Active Lives report in December found that 49% of white British girls exercise on average more than 60 minutes a day, compared to 38% of black girls.

Ali Oliver, CEO of the Youth Sport Trust, said gender inequality in school sport is linked to sport’s declining status as schools face increased responsibilities in subjects such as English, math and science.

She said it’s particularly an issue in secondary schools that aren’t eligible for the physical education and sports bounty. Girls’ perceptions of whether they see themselves as ‘athletic’ or ‘active’ are already developing in years four and five, she said, adding that the gap in participation between boys and girls in secondary education is “widening really opens”.

Bridget Phillipson, the shadow education secretary, said that observer: “Once again, the Conservatives are failing our children. They have narrowed the curriculum, crowded out experienced, qualified teachers, and neglected children’s development and learning.”

Labor is calling for a “guarantee of equal access” for every school sport and has pledged to introduce a children’s recovery plan that would provide after-school clubs for all children and expand access to sport.

A spokesman for the Ministry of Education said: “We want to build on the success of the Lionesses at Women’s Euro 2022, which will inspire a generation of girls to get involved in sport.

“The national curriculum for sport in schools does not discriminate on the basis of gender and we want the FA’s target of 90% of schools offering football for boys and girls by 2024 to be a reality.”

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