School sport in the UK: creating the next generation of Lionesses?

Article 18 November 2022 Experience

The sheer joy of the success of the England Women’s Football team (the ‘Lionesses’) winning the European Championships was a defining moment of summer 2022. It was a long time coming with many final and semi-final appearances over the years for the team. It was inevitable that after this success the spotlight would turn to the opportunities that football now presents to women, and what changes are required to make the sport more professional. Focus has also turned to opportunities at grass roots level for girls to get involved in football, and at school in particular.

Only a third of school age girls play football each week, despite the sport being most popular for all children. Further, just 63% of schools offer equal coaching for girls and boys football.¹ A campaign swiftly developed following the Lionesses’ victory calling for equal access for girls to play football in schools. However, this came with much confusion in the press about what was already included in the national curriculum and what was provided for by DFE guidance. Wanting to improve access to girls to football and to football coaching is a worthy objective, but is it really the case that whilst schools have to provide football for boys, they only have to provide ‘comparable sports’ for girls, as was the claim made in the press?

No. The national curriculum is not sex specific and football is listed as an example sport to be offered, not a requirement (for any gender).² The confusion seems to come from DFE guidance on gender separation in mixed schools.³ This guidance rightly noted that the Equality Act 2010 does not preclude schools from separating girls and boys for sport at the point at which girls would be at a physical disadvantage. However, an example was provided that included reference to a school being permitted to have a boys’ football team, but noting that it would be discriminatory if there was not an equal opportunity for girls to take part in comparable sporting activities. This is, again, legally correct. However, it does not follow that the law requires a school that has a boys’ football team to have a girls’ football team: the requirement could be satisfied with offering comparable competitive activities for girls, e.g. netball, hockey or rugby. This, however, seems to have been misinterpreted in recent reporting as legally allowing schools to give fewer opportunities in sports to girls, rather than there being a requirement for there to be equal, albeit not identical, opportunity.

What the national curriculum and DFE guidance do not do is give either girls or boys the right to play football in school. However, would a requirement to offer football to all girls in school have a material effect on the number of girls playing football and taking part in sport in school? Maybe, but possibly not.

There is a measurable drop in participation of girls in sport in school, particularly during secondary school, compared to boys: over two thirds of girls give up sport at this point.⁴ The reasons for this are myriad but it is clear that many are connected to the changes that affect the female body during puberty, particularly girls starting their periods and developing breasts. Without education and assistance being given to girls about the impact of these changes and how they affect their bodies in terms of their sports performance, these can represent a barrier to girls playing sport. Educating girls on their menstrual cycle and how hormones affect physical performance and emotions, and how to find a sports bra that fits, are good starting points to widening participation.

This is not assisted by the lack of female specific sports science research. For years women have been trained based on science and techniques that have been developed for and on men. Girls are also more likely than boys to have a joint injury and are twice as likely to suffer concussion, factors that need to be taken into account to reduce risks to girls when playing sports.⁵ Creating a nurturing, supportive environment for sport in schools is more likely to have a material impact on continued participation by girls in sport beyond primary school as a whole, and indeed football, than any changes to the curriculum or guidance.

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