The complex and largely negative attitudes held by many girls towards sport and physical activity is a national concern and an issue that educationalists and governing bodies have been attempting to tackle for years. Research has identified an alarming fall in participation rates of young people, and in particular girls, in sport. A recent study by the Women’s Sport Foundation showed that by age 14, girls are dropping out of sports at two times the rate of boys1. It is no coincidence that this drop off occurs around the age that girls start to become more aware of social pressures around gender identity and body image.
Physical education in schools has been regularly criticised as inappropriate for many girls’ needs, with narrow curricula that are dominated by competitive team games. Throughout my teaching career, I’ve seen girls become reluctant exercisers simply because the curriculum they are offered in school is too narrow. PE should be about encouraging and motivating young people to participate in physical activities that they can continue into their adult lives. A curriculum that focuses only on competitive and elite sports does not appeal to those girls who want to enjoy participating without the need for an end result.
At Kent College, we have launched a new sport and wellbeing programme that aims to combat this. Every afternoon, girls from different year groups, from nursery through to sixth form, have an opportunity to participate in activities that develop healthy minds and healthy lifestyles. This includes a programme for those that enjoy competitive, individual disciplines and team sports such as athletics, hockey and netball. It also includes a broader range of activities such as boxfit, badminton, trampolining, sessions on our outdoor adventure course, climbing, yoga, boot camp, forest school activities, lifesaving, basketball, table tennis, swimming and dance. Whilst pupils tend to remain in our school PE kit, (which has been designed with their input), they are allowed to wear their own suitable activewear, to ensure that there are no girls anxious about their body image.
In order to support our elite sportswomen who are thriving amongst the pressures of top-level sport, we run weekly scholarship sessions that provide each athlete with a performance programme, a mentor and sessions with our on-site strength and conditioning coach.
This programme has become a fundamental part of our curriculum and has been achieved by only slightly lengthening our school day. Crucially, there is no impact on the academic curriculum – removing another obstacle in girls’ participation.
Of course, role models are a key part of helping to inspire girls and I look to set an example to my students. I was never a great hockey player or an elite athlete at school, but later in life I discovered a love for running. I have run three marathons and recently completed ‘The 3 Peaks Challenge’ with my stepdaughter. As part of the sport and wellbeing afternoons, I participate in running club alongside sixth form pupils, joining our cross country team for a 10-mile sponsored run, as well as participating in Duke of Edinburgh activities.
The additional health benefits of exercise are well documented and include improved attention, memory, concentration and more efficient transfers of information from short- to long-term memory. With children spending so much time at school, programmes such as this will have a direct effect on pupils learning experiences across the curriculum.