Alex Hems: Head's Blog May 11, 2018
How do we lay the foundations in our girls for a healthy lifestyle in adulthood?
In schools we are rightly concerned to ensure that we are encouraging our students to lay down healthy habits for life. We teach this in our PSHE courses and wellbeing classes. Only if we help our students to find real pleasure in physical activity, however, so that they want to carry it forward into their adult lives, will this really be a sustainable habit. Some will of course find a passion for a sport at school which will remain with them for life. For the majority, however, this is sadly unlikely to be the case. Research published by Women in Sport in 2016 showed an alarming gulf of nearly two million fewer women than men taking part in sport at least once a week, and evidence suggests that this gap starts to open up when children are as young as 8, so there is clearly still much for us to do.
Team sports have traditionally played a central role in the curriculum of independent schools and that is still very much the case today, despite the ebb and flow of opinion in favour of or against competitive activity in schools. The companionship of being part of a team, the communication skills that it develops, the sense of responsibility towards fellow members, the recognition of strengths in others that one may lack oneself and the ability to both win and lose gracefully, these are all immensely valuable attributes and experiences which playing as part of a team can develop and offer. And that is without mentioning the sheer pleasure of being active, or the buzz that success can bring. The physical and mental resilience that regular physical activity engenders, the improvements in self-esteem and mental health that it can offer, are essential to the future health and wellbeing of our society, and these are compelling reasons for continuing to find ways to draw young people into sport and a more active lifestyle.
One of the most remarkable characteristics of all the girls’ schools that I have worked in is the level of participation in sport that is seen all the way to the sixth form. I love the fact that well over half of our primary 6 and 7 year groups will attend hockey club every week and that we can field several teams from each of those year groups, when we can find another school that can offer the same. At the other end of the scale, although not a large school we can put out three teams in the years above and four senior XIs.
Those traditional team sports are not for everyone, however, and not all schools are fortunate enough to have the space and the committed staff to run them. Our PE department deliver specialist teaching from Nursery upwards, and are very creative in finding ways to get our students active: power walking, ‘bikeability’, circuits, games making, all offer opportunities for those who are not fans of the team games. Badminton, sailing, fencing and tennis all have their keen followers. The relative lack of self-consciousness about appearances that pervades in girls’ schools means that in my experience we tend to have more difficulties with persuading girls to change out of their PE kit and back into uniform than with getting them active in the first place. I confess to being fiercely competitive myself, and am of course really proud when St George’s win cups and tournaments, and delighted for the girls as they celebrate. The real joy, however, is in watching the girls streaming past my office after school, going to practices and clubs, which they are doing because they love it, and I hope that if they love what they are doing they will want to find ways to continue with it into adult life.
Initiatives like Judy Murray’s She Rallies programme and the findings of the Women in Sport research suggest that there is great value for us as educators in learning more about the ways in which girls want to join in with sport and taking time to give them a voice in the way they learn. Another key factor in promoting long term engagement with sport and physical activity must be role modelling within families. Having fun in being active together is one of the greatest pleasures of family life (unless of course the whole family is fiercely competitive…) When we open our new sports pavilion on Saturday we will celebrate with a family and community sports fair, creating opportunities for anyone who wishes to come along to try something new, to join in with netball, football, judo, fencing, hockey, rugby or lacrosse. I am delighted that thanks to the far-sightedness of my predecessor the coming generations at St George’s will enjoy this beautiful new facility, which serves as a statement of how much we value physical education and sport for girls.
Mrs Alex Hems MA Oxon
Head, St George's School for Girls, Edinburgh