'We must enable girls to find a sport they love now so they will continue to make time for it in the future'
Caroline Jordan, headmistress at Headington School, Oxford, and vice president of the Girls’ Schools Association, writes about the importance of girls getting involved in sport.
The subject of girls’ participation in sport has raised its thorny head again. And so it should – it’s an incredibly important issue and one about which I feel particularly passionate.
This time, it’s a new survey by Women in Sport and the Youth Sport Trust and the results make for disheartening reading. Girls are less likely than boys to consider physical activity to be important, more likely to be put off due to lack of confidence, less likely to be interested in competitive PE lessons and less likely to do the recommended 60 minutes of physical activity a day.
It is a big problem. Sport and healthy physical activity is vital for ongoing good health and also has proven links to improved mental well-being. With the increased academic pressures which we know high-achieving girls can be more susceptible to, something as simple as getting out on the playing field for a match or completing a high-energy dance class can be the difference between coping and not coping.
There are lots of barriers to exercise and while some of them are relatively easy to break down, others prove tougher. That doesn’t mean we don’t need to try.
At Headington we have invested in a multi-million pound Dance and Fitness Centre. As well as traditional team sports such as hockey and netball, girls can do Pilates, spinning or street dance. We even have a ‘rubbish runners’ club – a space where girls who might consider themselves to be slow, unfit or ‘not good enough’ can find a quiet passion for running without any fear of judgement or coming last. The deafening cheers for our rowing champions are matched by those which ring out for a triumphant rock challenge dance performance – and pass with distinction. We also celebrate and recognise those for whom gaining a place on the C team is a huge achievement, or for taking the first step in signing up for a Taekwondo class.
According to the survey, more than one in four girls wouldn’t do PE because they had their period. In a girls’ school we can be sympathetic to that and recognise that sometimes that is a valid reason and offer them a suitable alternative – but it’s not an excuse we would be expecting every week. We need to listen to what will appeal to and engage girls and offer a real range of sports and activities so there is truly something for everyone.
We also need to treat them with respect. That means good, well-equipped changing facilities, privacy for showering and decent, practical and comfortable PE kit. Tops which will shrink or go thin and bobbly after the first few washes are highly impractical for self-conscious young women.
There are so many things to be gained from making exercise a habit – and one which you enjoy. As girls continue to grow up and become women, the pressures on their time will only increase. Now is the critical time to make sure girls are able to find a sport or activity they love so they will make time for it in future and continue to prioritise it. It’s a lesson I need to take heed of myself. As a working mother and grandmother with many demands on my time, I confess it’s been a while since I last got out for a run. Now, where did I put my trainers?