Empowering Gender Parity In Sport At Rgs

Issue 83

The success of the English Lionesses in the women's European football championships has inspired many young girls to believe they too could play on an international stage one day, though there is still the need for more diversity to be represented on the team.

During the tournament, BBC commentators Ian Wright and Alex Scott sent a bold message about the importance of girls having the opportunity to play football in schools as key to the future success of the game. After the final, the research organisation Teacher Tapp conducted a survey of over 8,000 teachers of whom less than half said their school has a girls’ football team and less than a quarter said they saw girls regularly playing football in break times. In contrast, 74% said their school had a boys’ football team with over 80% saying they saw boys playing football most days.

While it is right to challenge this disparity, some of the cause arises from differences in schools’ sports programmes with girls more likely to be offered hockey and netball while boys are more likely to be given the option of rugby and football. Co-educational schools are increasingly expected to provide a wider range of options and equivalent opportunities for all their students. This does however, present challenges in terms of staffing, use of facilities and even finding meaningful opposition for fixtures. As well as having girls playing alongside boys in every level of RGS cricket teams, we have also started to introduce separate girls’ teams for cricket. Unlike rounders previously offered to girls, there is a pathway beyond school in cricket which facilitates more competition. That said, while more of our sports staff have been developing their cricket coaching skills, finding additional cricket pitches is not straightforward. This challenge is felt acutely at club level and many schools in the maintained sector have had playing fields sold off.

The core purpose of a school’s sports programme should be to provide a breadth of activities to allow people to find what they truly enjoy and can, in turn, provide the base of a participation pyramid that leads to high performance. By way of example, at the RGS last year we had girls’ teams reaching (and in some cases winning) national finals in each of netball, hockey, swimming, cross country, riding, gymnastics, tennis and athletics. In a typical independent school, there is a gradual decline from near 100% of Years 7 to 9 representing their school in matches to around 50% in the Sixth Form as the option to take other forms of exercise starts to be offered, with the pattern continuing at university and beyond. Viewed through that lens, a school’s physical education should strive to ensure individuals develop a lifelong, positive relationship with any form of sport or exercise to support their physical and mental health.

I have no doubt the Lionesses’ success is likely to increase demand for girls’ football in schools. However, I recently supervised a student’s Extended Project Qualification which investigated the future of women’s football. His conclusion was the development relies on investment, from grassroots clubs to professional, rather than the provision in schools. Looking closely, influential factors are likely to be spectator numbers, revenue and media exposure. To give context, only 3% of sports coverage in British newspapers last year related to women’s sport and it was only this year that Newcastle United’s women’s team played their first league match ever at St James Park with tickets costing just £3. Since 2007, tennis has already shown what is possible, with prize money at the largest tournaments being equal for men and women.

I sincerely hope the Lionesses’ hard-fought achievement, despite the investment disparity, creates positive societal change and many more girls find a form of exercise they enjoy and will aspire to represent their country.

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