Press release

New research shows seven is heaven for girls and sports

Report suggests increased self-consciousness and lower confidence after Year 3 can stop girls participating in sport

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Jo Swinson

New research published today by the Government Equalities Office confirms that Year 3 (7-8 years old) is a critical age in keeping girls motivated to play sport. Beyond this age, girls become more self-conscious, lose confidence and many stop participating in sport.

The study, conducted for GEO by charity Women in Sport and the Youth Sport Trust, follows research from the Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation which showed that at Y4, activity levels are similar for boys and girls, but by Y6 girls are doing significantly less and this gap grows in the years that follow. The purpose of this research was to explore these findings further by focusing on girls in Y3 – the last academic year before the differences between boys and girls (in terms of confidence, body image and sports participation) start growing significantly.

This latest research found that amongst children interviewed, in Year 3, girls are still participating in school sports at broadly the same level as boys. Their confidence and body image is good, they are still largely influenced by their parents and only minimally influenced by celebrity culture and external role models. However, there are early signs emerging of what causes them to drop out of sports participation.

The research found in respondents:

  • Gender perceptions are already emerging in relation to sport; girls think boys are ‘stupid’ and ‘their’ sports rough, the boys think girls lack skill and competence. Also, while school sports participation is roughly equal, outside school things look very different, with many more boys than girls involved in out-of-school sports clubs;
  • The girls disliked playing games outside in the cold, whereas boys enjoyed the extra space associated with outside games. This difference is reflected in the sports they participate in with girls leaning towards swimming, dance, tennis, netball and gymnastics and boys more often highlighting football, cricket and rugby; and
  • Girls were also beginning to notice the lack of female sporting role models available to them. Girls and boys agreed PE should be different for both sexes. Girls felt that boys can be overly competitive, cheat and play rough and boys perceived girls as ‘less sporty’ and skilled, as well as less interested in ‘rough’ and muddy outdoor sports.

Teachers and parents who were interviewed strongly agreed that the seven and eight year olds were not bothered by personal appearance, but that year three is the last school year in which girls are less self conscious. They observed that the self consciousness sometimes led to dropping out of sports and that if that happened, girls were less likely to return to it. This is backed up by evidence from Sport England, released as part of their This Girl Can campaign, which shows that fewer women than men play sport regularly, two million fewer 14-40 year olds in total. Despite this, 75 per cent say they want to be more active.

Jo Swinson, Women and Equalities Minister said:

Our research shows that schools and parents have a golden opportunity when girls are seven and eight years old to support and encourage them to keep taking part in sport. We know that after this age, low confidence and body consciousness can combine to reduce their eagerness to take part, which is a real shame and can have lasting effects on health right into adulthood.

This can be part of a vicious circle; if women don’t take part, their daughters won’t either. That is why I absolutely love the This Girl Can campaign which aims to get women participating in sport. I’m also delighted to confirm that the PSHE Association are publishing materials to help teachers with classes about body confidence. We need to keep all girls enjoying exercise, and both schools and families can play their part.

Previous research from Girlguiding UK has shown that 23 per cent of girls aged 7-21 don’t participate in exercise because they are unhappy with their body image and the PSHE Association has found that 95 per cent of teachers would value more support in this area, with schoolchildren citing body image as the number one issue they would like addressed within PSHE. The Government Equalities Office today confirmed that they are working with the PSHE Association to develop materials for use in the classroom to give teachers more confidence and better guidance.

Chief Executive of Women in Sport, Ruth Holdaway, said:

Working in partnership with the Government Equalities Office and the Youth Sport Trust to complete this important piece of research is a really significant part of our work to get more girls participating in sport. We want to transform sport for the benefit of every woman and girl in the UK and this research gives us a solid foundation to do just that.

Girls begin to be less active in sport far earlier than boys; our previous Changing the Game, for Girls research suggests this change typically starts around Year 4. The aim of this new research is to understand what life is like for 7 and 8 year-olds, why some girls start to disengage from sport and physical activity at this age and what we can do to combat this.

Tanya Joseph, Sport England Director of Business Partnerships, said:

All of the research we’ve looked at and thousands of comments we’ve received absolutely highlight that low body confidence is a one of the things that stop girls and women from being as active as they want to be. It’s the underlying barrier that needs to be tackled head on.

We used insight in the development of This Girl Can. We wanted to make the campaign the first of its kind to feature girls and women of all shapes, sizes and sporting abilities that sweat and jiggle as they exercise. We wanted to tell them that it doesn’t matter if you are a bit rubbish or completely brilliant, the main thing is that you are a woman and you are doing something, and that deserves to be celebrated.

It’s early days, but the phenomenal response we’ve had here and around the world reinforces the importance of tackling emotional as well as physical barriers to exercising.

Jo Swinson today also published a progress report on the government’s work on body confidence.

GEO has published an animated video explaining body confidence and why it matters.

GEO Body Confidence

Notes to Editors

  1. As well as the Youtube animation, infographics will also be available from our Facebook page. Please call Orla Delargy on 020 7340 7851.
  2. The Changing the game for girls quantitative research conducted by Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation from 2012 showed that
    • only 12% of girls aged 14 do enough physical activity to benefit their health.
    • At Year 4 of primary school, girls and boys are doing similar levels of physical activity. However, by Year 6, girls are doing significantly less, and this gap increases as young people progress in to secondary school.
    • By year 9, half of boys report that they had undertaken 60 minutes of physical activity in five or more days in the previous week. The equivalent figure for girls is only 31%.
    • 48% of secondary school girls agree that “getting sweaty is not feminine”.
  3. The aim of this latest GEO-funded research, conducted by Women in Sport and Youth Sport Trust, was to explore those findings in more depth and gain greater understanding of how the factors of gender, body image and motivation to play sport interrelate. Girls, boys and parents were interviewed at three schools in North Oxfordshire.
  4. Primary Schools currently receive £150 million of ring-fenced funding a year for the PE and Sport Premium in order to improve the quality of the PE and sport activities they can offer their pupils. The funding is provided jointly by the Department for Education, the Department of Health and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.

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Published 27 March 2015