Imagine a school that divided its subjects by gender. A school that didn't allow girls to study chemistry or algebra, and the only way to access those subjects was to pursue private tuition outside of school hours at their own expense. There would, rightly, be outrage.
When it comes to PE lessons, however, it remains perfectly acceptable for a school to offer different sports to boys and girls. The rationale? Archaic and gendered ideas about physical activity: football and rugby are best suited to boys; netball and dance are best for girls. At the same time that we have public health and sports governing bodies working to promote football and rugby to women and girls, we are turning a blind eye to a blatantly sexist and outdated practice in education that tells girls those very same sports are not for them.
This week a BBC Sport article reported that a 13-year-old girl in Wales had complained to her teachers about not being allowed to play football as a PE option in school. The story prompted national coverage and surprise from many that this still occurs. It came as no surprise to me. It's a complaint I've heard from parents, teachers and students many times before.
Two weeks ago I hosted a panel for the Women in Sport conference on Generation Z and the barriers that young women face in accessing sport. One of the speakers was 16-year-old Caitlin Cunningham who told how she had to convince her school to allow girls to play football and rugby. She described how the girls' changing room had a poster of a female netballer outside it - posed, unruffled and static - while the boys' changing room had a poster of boys playing rugby and physically exerting themselves.
The message, she said, was clear about the physical expectations of girls and boys in school PE lessons. This week, following the BBC article, I heard from parents on social media who also wanted to share their experiences: from those whose daughters were being segregated in PE from year 7, to a mother whose son was being teased for wanting to play netball.
Frustratingly there doesn't seem to be any comprehensive research into this issue. How widespread is this practice? And how has it continued under the 2010 Equality Act? Government advice for schools, published in May 2014, stipulates: "Schools need to make sure that pupils of one sex are not singled out for different and less favorable treatment from that given to other pupils." There is even a section on single-sex sport: "while this exception might permit a mixed school to have a boys-only football team, the school would still have to allow girls equal opportunities to participate in comparable sporting activities". The word "comparable" here is clearly problematic.
When the former sports minister Tracey Crouch bravely slashed the starting age of the national sport strategy from 14 to five years old, we should have seen the end of gendered PE. After all, the idea that a sport is meant for any particular gender is ludicrous. While in the UK football is viewed as a man's game, in the US it is deemed a woman's game. And over time perceptions change too - 100 years ago figure skating was a men-only sport; these days its biggest stars are female. And none of this is to suggest a devaluing of sports traditionally viewed as female - rather that all sports should be valued on a level playing field, free from gender bias.
Gender-segregated sport is, of course, legal - although sports governing bodies increasingly champion mixed sport sessions, with the FA raising the age of mixed football to 18. And there are many valid arguments as to why both mixed and segregated sport are useful, at different ages, and in different contexts.
Today the FA and the Youth Sport Trust are launching their report into Game of Our Own, a programme that's been running in 86 schools since January, delivering football sessions to 5,537 secondary school girls. Interestingly, 93% of the girls said that football wasn't just for boys, even though half of the participants had never played regularly. In other words, the girls understand that they deserve equal opportunity; they just haven't been given it. When asked what stops girls from playing football, a frequent answer was boys being judgmental or laughing. Women in Sport research on seven- and eight-year-olds shows children have fixed ideas about what boys and girls are physically capable of from a very early age. I wonder where that might come from?
I'm heartened by Game of Our own, I think we need to see much more of it. The key to unlocking the FA's 2020 participation goals for women and girls' football surely lies here, with a ready-made audience, at every school in the country. If only we could get the government departments to push it through. Football is our national sport, so how is it possible that some schools continue to offer it solely to boys? All sports on the school timetable should be available to all children. It's mind-boggling that in 2018 we even have to spell this out.
Anna Kessel is a sports writer for the
Guardian and Observer
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