Keen competitive footballer Carmel Daniel considers the implications of the FA’s plans for girl’s football

The FA Inspiring Positive Change Strategy and its Let Girls Play campaign support its strategic ambition to give all girls what it describes as ‘equal access to play football’ in school. At present, according to the FA, 63% per cent of schools currently offer girl’s football in PE lessons and its target is to raise this figure to 75% of schools providing this by 2024.

The #LetGirlsPlay campaign supports this ambition by encouraging people to stop, listen and see how they can make a difference to this current challenge. Its website provides resources to help influence the start of change and allow more girls to feel the mental and physical benefits of exercise through playing football.

The Lionesses’ have called for a nationwide shake-up to the way sports are taught, telling the Government that “this is an opportunity to make a difference” and asking it to make it a priority to invest in girls’ football in schools, so that ‘every girl has a choice’.

Baroness Sue Campbell noted that ‘currently, only a third of girls aged 5-18 participate in football every week and suggested that ‘now is the time to drive a far-reaching ambition to open up the game in every way to girls’ indicating that the Let Girls Play campaign ‘allows parents and teachers to play a huge role in joining us in this commitment’.

While this is an understandable ambition for football it does raise a few issues.

The phrase ‘equal access’ is somewhat loaded and, arguably, inappropriately emotive. Does the equality reference relate to boys or is football being equated with other notionally girls’ sports. If it does relate to boys is the implicit assumption (or proven situation) that all boys have ‘access to football’?

If it is to gain this greater foothold on the PE curriculum, what must give way – netball, hockey, badminton, athletics, gymnastics, dance? Would provision of equal access to football be damaging to these other sports/activities or is this an FA desire to create an Orwellian scenario where all sports are equal but some are more equal than others!

The influential Women’s Sports & Fitness Foundation Changing the Game for Girls report notes that the National Curriculum is already broad enough to allow teachers, in consultation with girls, to choose activities that will be engaging and motivating to female students.

Leaving this to one side, is there evidence to suggest that there is a clamour among girls to gain equal access to football. It is possible that ‘equal access to football’ may simply amount to the extension of imposition of a curriculum on an unwilling and un-consulted audience?

In her article: Girls should get the chance to play football at school – but PE needs a major rehaul for all students (published 4 August 2022 in The Conversation, Shrehan Lynch; Senior Lecturer in Initial Teacher Education at the University of East London notes that ‘a narrow curriculum is often informed by teachers’ own sporting love affairs.

Her view is that this can be seen in the continued recycling of traditional sports, like football, rugby, cricket and athletics for boys and dance, netball, rounders and athletics for girls’. She suggests that ‘a negotiated curriculum would be far more beneficial, giving young people choices in what they want to participate in and how’.

She also makes the point that ‘there are many other ways to make PE more modern and equitable…’ and that ‘schools often don’t realise they are engaging in highly inequitable practices and offering little choice to students, because many teachers simply mimic their own experiences of PE’.

She goes on to proffer the theory that ‘instead of seeing that their role is to ensure all young people can find ways of enjoying movement that can be carried throughout life, they (PE teachers – male and female) just continue the cycle of outdated and uninspiring PE’.

The Childwise Monitor Report 2022; based on a survey of more than 2,700 children aged 5-16 across the UK between September and November 2021 found that the sports gender gap per se had widened last year, with boys playing an extra hour on average more than girls. It suggests that girls play around half the amount of football, rugby and cricket as boys in secondary schools and that girls aged between 11-16 were offered around half the amount of coaching in traditionally ‘male’ sports last year compared to boys of the same age.

It also found that 33% of girls aged 11-16 reported playing football at secondary school, compared with 63% of boys and noted the considerable drop compared with primary-age children where 54% of girls aged 7-10 said they played football last year, compared to 80% of boys.

According to Childwise, (un)equal access is comparably prevalent in rugby in which girls (14%) in secondary school played less than half the amount as boys (29%) and cricket (12% – girls / 21% – boys). The cricket figure is, arguably, of greater concern given that cricket coaching at primary school is relatively equal; 21% of girls aged 7-10 reporting having received training in the sport last year compared to 24% of boys.

The Childwise Report showed that girls still tend to take part in more traditionally ‘feminine’ sports such as netball and gymnastics, which typically get less airtime than football, cricket and rugby. At secondary level, girls played almost five times the amount of netball last year than boys (61% of girls aged 11-16 had received coaching compared to 13% of boys). Girls also did more than three times more gymnastics than boys; 8% of boys aged 11-16 were offered training in the sport during PE compared to 30% of girls.

Perhaps it is simply team games opportunity for girls about which people should be concerned given that while girls are offered broad access to such sport in primary school, opportunities tend to drop off once they reach secondary education.

Arguably, it is more important to consider this issue in respect of the influence that football could have in respect of girl’s PE and sport in schools per se. The entire England Lionesses squad urged the Government to commit to giving girls at least two hours of PE lessons each week.

Labour has also called on the Government to introduce an “Equal Access Guarantee” for schools, which would ensure that girls and boys are offered equal access to sports during PE lessons. Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson urged the Government to update current guidance which recommends that while boys can be taught traditionally ‘male’ sports on boys-only teams, girls should be offered “comparable” sports.

The DfE insists that it is up to individual schools to decide what sports to teach, noting that swimming is the only one which is compulsory on the national curriculum.

Clearly there is no right or wrong ambition or answer, but perhaps the focus of the FA (and other sports) should start by reflecting the Lionesses’ demand that the Government commits to girls getting two hours of (preferably high quality) PE before we start dividing the spoils?

Carmel Daniel is a consultant at KKP


January 2023