Bucking the trend

Studies show the number of young women taking part in competitive sport has fallen, but Sally Dudley at Wycliffe begs to differ

Numerous studies have shown girls’ participation in competitive sport drops off a cliff after age 14. They become body-conscious; worry about what boys think of them; shun ‘rough’ team games and retreat to dance, gymnastics and swimming.

Not at Wycliffe College. Here, girls’ games are thriving. We have record numbers of hockey and netball teams celebrating success at county and regional level and pupils are winning in equestrian, rowing, squash and other sports. These achievements come in spite of the young sportswomen competing against larger schools and being drawn from individual year groups of just 40 girls.

Team sports offer leadership skills, team and confidence-building. It is why we are so proud of our Wycliffe Advanced Sports Programme (WASP), which provides specialised coaching to our gifted athletes.

In WASP’s gifted and talented sector girls and boys from different sports train together – we think it gives both sexes an edge. The U19 squash teams who trained together last year picked up titles at the Nationals.

Individual sportswomen such as Zoe Davison are thriving in the environment too. The 17-year-old Team GBR Pentathlete excels at all five modern pentathlon disciplines – swimming, riding, fencing, running, and shooting. With her collection of medals and trophies, she remains hopeful of achieving her ambition of competing at the 2020 Olympics.

In her address to the Girls’ School Association Conference in Oxford, president Caroline Jordan talked about single-sex environments, how, without the distraction of boys, girls ‘excel at, and enjoy, physical activity’.

At Wycliffe, we do not believe the two have to be exclusive. Coaching and teams are separate for boys and girls at Wycliffe, because we believe – like Caroline – this best gives our girls the chance to shine. But they play with and against each other thrice-weekly and celebrate their successes together. Wycliffe’s girls are performing better now than at any time in the school’s 130-plus-year history with many on national talent pathways.

All age groups regularly pick up district trophies and the Prep School has reached the National IAPS finals in a number of sports. In 2014 and 2015, our girls were the U14s county netball runners-up and South West regional finalists. This season, our U16s were runners-up in the county hockey finals and qualified for the West regionals. Our U13 girls – who train with boys – are current IAPS National Cross-Country Champions.

In squash, the U19 girls were national champions in 2015 and 2016. U19 European squash champion Amelia Henley’s dedication to both her squash and academic subjects led to a Harvard scholarship. Our pupils have achieved an incredible breadth of success across all sports, particularly given the players are picked from such a limited number of pupils.

A recent study by an all-party parliamentary group on a Fit and Healthy Childhood concluded that school PE needs a radical shake-up. This is partly why we’ve introduced zumba and yoga, badminton, boxercise and gym sessions for girls who want to lead a balanced, healthy lifestyle. Also, since its launch, This Girl Can’s adverts – real women, doing real sport – have encouraged 2.8 million girls aged 14 upwards back onto the sports pitches and running tracks, and into boxing gyms and the pool. 

We are determined to foster that sporting culture in Wycliffe’s girls, and it is something we know they continue when they leave us. It is a sporting legacy of which we are incredibly proud.  

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