Physical education

Is the Lionesses’ legacy changing the face of school football?

Our data shows change is happening unevenly across the education sector, explains Iain Ford, but it is happening

Our data shows change is happening unevenly across the education sector, explains Iain Ford, but it is happening

11 Sep 2023, 5:00

After winning the European championship last year, the Lionesses penned an open letter to government saying they wanted to see more girls playing football at school.

Change is already afoot with the DfE recently announcing its school sport plan. But changes in curriculum can take time to filter through, so what’s been the impact of the Lionesses’ successes so far?

Last year, Teacher Tapp sought to find out how many schools have girls’ football teams and whether girls playing football is a common sight at break times. With the Lionesses coming agonisingly close to winning the world cup this summer, have we started to see change on the playground?

A grassroots revolution

Concrete-painted football pitches have traditionally been dominated by boys. But while jumpers for goalposts remain a mainstay of break and lunchtimes, it appears that the typical playground footballer is changing.

Around three-quarters of teachers say they see boys playing football at break time every day. Last year, however, less than one-quarter of primary teachers could say the same about girls. Secondary teachers reported an even lower proportion – just six per cent reported seeing girls play every day.

One year on, both groups have seen an increase, albeit primary teachers more than secondary. Just under one-third (32 per cent) of primary teachers now say they see girls play football every day, up ten percentage points compared to last year alone! Secondary teachers have seen a smaller increase – from six per cent to nine per cent.

Though these figures don’t show the number of players, it nevertheless appears that the seeds of change have started to take root. And that’s before this year’s world cup run has begun to have any impact.

The power of policy

Of course, school-level factors can influence the level of sport that happens in the playground each day.

Forty per cent of teachers say that if students have a PE lesson that day, then they can wear their PE kit for the entire day. In primary schools, 66 per cent of teachers say this is the norm. By contrast, only 14 per cent of secondary teachers report the same.

Anecdotally, we’ve heard that more students play sports at break times when this is the case, and there is some evidence that this is true. Teachers in both primary and secondary schools are more likely to report seeing girls playing football at break times if their students can wear PE kit for the day.

The competitive edge

Many schools are taking the natural next step of establishing a girl’s football team. In August 2022, 61 per cent of primary and 72 per cent of secondary teachers reported that their school had a girl’s (or mixed) football team. Less than one year later, it’s 71 per cent of primary and 78 per cent of secondary teachers.

Today, girls’ and boys’ football teams are equally common in primary schools. In secondary schools though, there’s still some catching up to do; 78 per cent of secondary teachers say their school has a girls’ football team compared to 94 per cent who have a boys’ football team.

In addition, the above results exclude those who said they don’t know. In fact, many more teachers were unsure about whether their school had a girls’ football team compared to a boys’ team. So it’s clear that girls’ teams are not yet established in the common parlance of school sports.

Wider impact?

Of course, there’s more to life than football, and other school sports are still characterised by gender differences.

However, of the many sports on offer to students, only two show sizeable differences. Twenty-two per cent of teachers say that there is a rugby after-school club for boys, compared to just 13 per cent who say the same is available for girls. Conversely, 30 per cent say netball is available to girls, but just 12 per cent say it is for boys.

So gaps remain to be filled, and these may take time, but we can safely say the Lionesses are already making a difference.

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