Senior schools in Brighton and Hove are offering female-orientated lessons to get girls more interested in sport, ROSY CHERRINGTON found out how the initiative is paying dividends...

Skipping PE lessons? Not our girls!

Zumba, body combat and ultimate frisbee are just some of the unusual classes on offer to girls aged 11 to 16 at Blatchington Mill, Hove Park, and Brighton and Hove High School.

Physical education may be compulsory in schools, but research released in May by The Women’s Sport and Fitness Foundation revealed that one in five girls in the UK fails to attend PE each week – twice as many as British boys.

With these figures making national headlines, getting girls involved in sport is more important than ever – but providing fun fitness is something schools in Brighton and Hove are already succeeding at.

Emma Vermeer, joint head of PE at Hove Park, said: “We are extremely proud of the level of engagement in PE here, and our participation rate is well above the national average.”

“Our classes include spinning, Zumba, circuits, body conditioning, boxercise and pilates and they’ve had a huge impact on the girls’ enthusiasm.”

This focus on interesting activities over appearance lies at odds to statements made by the chief executive of Sport England, who suggested schools encourage girls into PE by providing hairdryers in changing rooms to allow them to “reconstruct” themselves after exercise.

Sue James, head of dance at Brighton and Hove High School, said: “I think that comment was ridiculous. If teachers are delivering fun, engaging lessons then it doesn’t matter if you have a hair dryer.”

Brighton and Hove High School (BHHS) is veering away from the national curriculum’s focus on competitive sport by tailoring its approach to girls’ needs.

Alongside more traditional sports like netball, tennis and hockey, BHHS now runs extensive dance classes, yoga, and ultimate frisbee.

One of the biggest hits with year nine girls is the new urban gym class – the school’s safe indoor equivalent of parkour – the practice which sees daredevil free runners jumping across urban settings.

Sue, who started at BHHS eight years ago, said: “Thanks to the new offerings, we now have a participation rate of 99 per cent.”

“I very rarely have any girls say they can’t do it and that’s because they don’t have to conform – there’s so much variety that they all get to succeed in sport, even if they don’t fit a certain mould.”

The school stresses the importance of addressing the issue of girls participating in sport, not just in terms of health and fitness, but with respect to women’s aspirations.

A survey commissioned by Ernst & Young linked women in senior management positions to experience with sports, finding that 96 per cent of the highest ranking female executives played sports, 55 per cent of those at university level.

But by the time British girls reach the age of 14, only 12 per cent do the weekly amount of sport recommended by the Government – a statistic Jennifer Smith, head of Brighton and Hove High School, finds worrying.

Speaking at the annual conference of the Girl’s Day School Trust, she said: “It’s not just a question of physical fitness, sport plays an important role in developing confidence, resilience, and leadership.”

“It helps girls and young women to become less conscious of how they are seen and more focused on achieving a goal, either individually or as part of a team.”

“We’re proud to see our girls embarking from their time with us ready to take on the world and any challenges it throws at them.”

Another teacher keen to make girls’ participation a priority is Linda Whapham, head of girls PE at Blatchington Mill.

She said: “We made a conscious decision to facilitate the girls getting fitter and to stop them from making excuses to skip lessons.”

Due to the low levels of girls taking part in PE, five years ago Blatchington Mill teamed up with Corals Health and Fitness Club to offer a new range of sports.

Linda said: “The uptake has been huge, girls are desperate to go to the gym – not only is it exciting to go off campus, it’s empowering for them to choose what sport they want to do.”

The new female-aimed classes have been so popular that she said they no longer get notes asking for the girls to be excused.

Blatchington Mill aims to give students a lifelong relationship with sport by offering reduced course rates and memberships at Corals.

The school also ran an extra-curricular course called Girls Get Active, in association with Brighton and Hove City Council.

Girls Get Active, delivered by the council’s Active For Life project, was designed to engage and encourage even the least likely to participate in sport.

Taking place at the King Alfred leisure centre, low cost drop-in classes like Zumba and spinning allows girls to learn at their own pace, giving them the tools needed to be more active within curricular lessons.

A spokesman for Brighton and Hove City Council said: “Getting involved in sport can be a very positive experience for young women – it’s esteem boosting, helps build leadership skills and is great for learning to work in a team.”

For more information on Girls Get Active, visit: