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Prep girls not equal to the beautiful game?

By Anne Hadley | March 2018

Girls playing footballOne of the reasons parents choose a prep over a state primary - glossy school brochures show gazelle-like girls mid leap to grab a netball, flushed boys in joyful athletic tackle. You’re purchasing an almost daily focus on games, with top class coaching, weekly fixtures and match teas; the chance to learn all about comradery, winning and losing on a chilly pitch on a Wednesday afternoon. It’s something parents are willing to pay for, and schools are eager to cash in on.

For girls, prep school games mean, usually, netball, hockey and rounders. Girls are never actually in a bodily state of tackle (other than a quick shove when the ref’s looking the other way). Prep school girls don’t play full contact sports - nice girls just don’t do that sort of thing. But boys, of course, do, fine tuning their masculinity in rugby, and enjoying the manly limited contact sports of football and cricket. Only hockey is sometimes played by both sexes.

Unequal sports opportunities

There is more than a whiff of inequality about this divide. Of course traditional girls’ sports have their devotees, but generally speaking, football, rugby and cricket have greater status and international presence - and girls want to play them too. It’s not as if they haven’t been playing them for years. The first public women’s football matches were in the 19th century; the first schoolgirl to play on her school’s rugby team - and score a try - was Emily Valentine in 1887. Women’s cricket goes back even earlier, the first recorded cricket match taking place in 1745 between ‘eleven maids of Bramley and eleven maids of Hambledon’. Alas, female appetite to play has not been met by public (often male) delight - disrespect or violence by men at this invasion of traditional boys’ club games marks their progress through the centuries, and it has been hard work for women to progress to the current relatively enlightened present, where, according to the Football Association, football is the top participation sport for women and girls in the UK. Rugby is of ever increasing popularity with women, with World Rugby working hard with its global strategy to develop the women’s game: ‘Rugby has no barriers. It is a progressive, modern, attractive, dynamic and inclusive sport played by girls and women, boys and men around the world’. In cricket, England’s women’s team won the World Cup. But women’s games lack the prize money and the status of men’s games, and for this to alter, something needs to change from bottom up - from school onwards.

Gender divide

The situation is rather healthier at state primary schools, where girls nearly always play football, and often cricket (although rugby, when played at all, usually remains a boys’ preserve). Girls at private senior schools often have the opportunity to play football and cricket alongside traditional girls’ sports (in single sex teams). But at prep school, the divide remains.

Prep schools, it seems, recoil from the idea of nice girls throwing themselves at another girl’s  - or boy’s -  legs in a tackle, although an honourable mention for Brambletye prep, who have allowed a keen and able girl to play in their rugby team - the head’s wife reporting proudly after her first match ‘she played a blinder’ - with another girl in the football team. This remains a rare example. A few prep schools allow the odd talented girl onto their cricket teams, and many prep schools run extracurricular football clubs for girls, but only a few, such as Bede’s, include football and cricket in the girls’ curriculum.

Mixed teams

Is the problem perhaps the idea of mixed teams? The idea of a bit of rough and tumble between girls and boys outrages our sensibilities - surely not something to be encouraged, and this is at least partially recognised by the Equality Act, which allows contravention of the Act in a ‘gender-affected activity’, this being ‘a sport…of a competitive nature …in which the physical strength, stamina or physique of average persons of one sex would put them at a disadvantage compared to average persons of the other sex…’ .

But girls and boys remain a similar size until at least year 5 or 6. Could children not play together from nursery until age 10, then play in single sex teams? This reviewer has found some prep heads cautiously open to this idea; yet one head recounted the views of a recent meeting of the IAPS: that the inclusion of girls would dilute the standard of boys’ football, the implication being that girls are simply constitutionally less able than boys to play football. It seems extraordinary that in 2018 the assumption remains that even if girls receive the same training as boys that they will be less good players. Until these misogynist assumptions are smashed, girls at prep school will continue to wield soft balls and rounders bats, while boys step up the stumps, hard balls and a man’s game.

Female footballers

In 1894 Nellie Hudson formed the British Ladies Football Club, declaring in a newspaper interview that she had founded the club ‘with the fixed resolve of proving to the world that women are not the ornamental and useless creatures men have pictured’. The three million girls and women who play football in this country would agree with her wholeheartedly. Now, in 2018, it is surely time for prep school heads to heed these words and let girls play a full part in all games.

The GSG is pretty sure that the current situation in sports-segregated schools is illegal. If any of you feel like taking your school to court, we'd be happy to chip in. No? We're not surprised. Nor did many of us when we were in a position to do so. Too much to risk for too small a gain.

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