The Gender Gap in PE

By the age of 7,  girls are already less active than boys and this disparity widens as they move from childhood into adolescence. But what happens when children move from primary to secondary?

In 2016, the Youth Sport Trust and Women in Sport surveyed 21,000 girls and 5,000 boys from 138 secondary schools in England and Wales to better understand similarities and differences across both genders in relation to activity levels and attitudes to PE. All the schools surveyed had signed up to the Girls Active programme.

What they found was a scandalous gulf between boys and girls and the survey insights are now shaking the system to improve the sports offering for girls in schools across the UK and to get 100,000 more girls active by 2018.

Whilst both boys and girls understood the significance of an active lifestyle, but there was a big disconnect between girls’ attitudes and actual behaviour with “Painful periods, issues with confidence and self-consciousness, the pressure of academic school work, and lack of encouragement from teachers and parents, all hold teenage girls back from being physically active.”

What the research found

The key findings of the Girls Active Survey include:

– Secondary school aged boys (11-16) are happier with the amount of physical activity they take part in and enjoy it more than girls (71% of boys compared to 56% of girls).
– Pressure of school work and low confidence are much bigger barriers to taking part in physical activity for girls than boys (24% of girls compared to 13% of boys).
– Satisfaction with body image for girls declines with age. One in four are unhappy with their body image at 11-13 years and this figure increases to one in three by the time they reach 14-16 years.
– Girls do not see the relevance of the skills they learn in PE to their lives (45% of girls compared to 60% of boys).
– Competitive PE lessons appeal to 70% of boys but only 50% of girls.

This survey mirrors the 2017 Girlguiding Girls Attitude Survey where 26% of  girls aged 7-21 think that PE is more for boys.

It found that the most significant biggest barrier to girls engaging in sport was feeling pressure over their appearance (43%), while 24% felt that harassment and intimidation from boys and men prevented them from taking part.

Ruth Holdaway, Chief Executive of Women in Sport said that “we should all be ashamed” that we have allowed the disconnect as girls are missing out.

Girls’ schools taking the lead

All girls’ schools might be bucking this trend though. In some cases, girls can be more ambitious and feel more empowered in an all-female environment with a ‘no-limits’ culture to push boundaries where size, age or ability isn’t the focus.

Chief Executive of the Youth Sport Trust, Ali Oliver added that the survey findings were there “to help teachers and other sports providers offer girls a more tailored programme of activities that meet their needs and encourage wider participation.”

What can I do now?

Based on the principles of the Girls Active programme, the survey makes 6 recommendations for schools to encourage and engage girls in PE and physical activity:

1. Make PE and physical activity relevant to girls’ lives
2. Empower girls through involving them in design and delivery of PE and physical activities
3. Develop role models by using girls as positive influencers and advocates with their peer group
4. Place developing self-confidence at the heart of PE and physical activity
5. Recognise the power of friends to drive progress
6. Take a long-term approach to engaging girls

The Girls Active programme has a very significant role to play and schools are encouraged to join. It has been developed by the Youth Sport Trust and is delivered in partnership with This Girl Can and Women in Sport. Not only are girls actively consulted and involved in the design and delivery of PE they are also given leadership positions and the programme aims to make a positive difference by improving girls’ attitudes to school, raising girls’ confidence and self-esteem.


But what can else can co-educational settings do? Research has shown that schools should stop segregating boys and girls in PE lessons because school sport is fuelling gender prejudice and stereotypes of ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ behaviours in later life. It has been said that separating boys and girls is an historic legacy from Victorian values and a binary model doesn’t meet the needs of all pupils as not all adolescents are gender conforming.

We teach pupils that gender is a spectrum and yet how many schools adopt an integrated gender neutral PE strategy? Arguably this would be more inclusive and less discriminatory.

Whilst there may be concerns that mixed games could lead to sexual harassment or discrimination, it is argued that a controlled environment is actually the best opportunity for pupils to learn how to respect each other.

To stop any pupils being pigeon-holed as weak, shouldn’t every student be given equal access to all sports and participate in mixed environments and competitions?

As we redefine gender with gender identity becoming more fluid, an integrated approach allows pupils to become more supportive of each other so that there are no divisions and no one misses out.


Author: John Dabel

John DabelJohn is an ex-primary school teacher and Ofsted inspector who has spent the last 20 years working in the education industry as a teacher, national in-service provider, project manager, writer and editor. John’s specialist area is primary maths but he also loves teaching science and English. John has written a number of educational and children’s books and contributed well over 1,000 articles, features, reviews and curriculum projects to various bodies, magazines, journals and institutions. John is eTeach’s school leadership and Ofsted advice guru – sharing monthly insights on best practice for motivating and enriching a school team, as well as sharing savvy career steps for headteachers and SLT.



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One thought on “The Gender Gap in PE

  1. All sports for all genders.
    Absolutely brilliant but the structure of education is largely to blame.
    PE Training in primary education gets about 6 hours per year is all that is scheduled.
    Sports coaching qualifications should be mandatory on all teacher training courses and particularly with secondary level that should be at level 2 in all of the major sports,
    Football, cricket, rounders,rugby,netball, basketball,swimming,tennis.
    A level 1 in 2 sports a year at primary level would ensure that children would arrive particularly girls in secondary schools school willing to particate in physical activity but mainly indoor sports.
    A survey I carried out while undertaking my pgce showed that boys only exceeded in enjoyment of physical activity by 5% in primary but this changed to nearly 70% in early secondary by virtue of the Sports offered (Mainly outdoors).
    Given that PE is now a exam subject and a compulsory item in the national curriculum the specialist teaching of it warrants as much importance as teaching maths and English.
    I am not a PE teacher but was a sports and outdoor pursuits coach working in the youth service, and all levels of education, primary,secondary, Further and higher education

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