A collaborative approach to increasing girls’ engagement of school sport and physical activity – Nottingham & Derby Cities

National children’s charity, the Youth Sport Trust worked collaboratively with Active Partners Trust (APT) to develop and deliver a programme of intervention to schools in targeted communities, to increase engagement and enjoyment of physical activity.


National children’s charity, the Youth Sport Trust worked collaboratively with Active Partners Trust (APT) to develop and deliver a programme of intervention to schools in targeted communities.

The partnership combined resource, expertise and support through the Youth Sport Trust’s Girls Active programme and APT School Games remit; both aimed to increase engagement and enjoyment of physical activity for targeted groups of young people, particularly those who experience greater barriers or inequalities to participation.

We targeted secondary schools with a high percentage of female students receiving free school meals (FSM), from ethnically diverse communities, and/or had English as an Additional Language (EAL).

The challenge

By age 7, girls are already less active than boys and this disparity widens as they move from childhood into adolescence. Across all ages, fewer girls (44 per cent) meet Chief Medical Officers physical activity recommendations compared with boys (51 per cent)

Adolescent girls are more likely to experience barriers to participation than boys with the biggest drop-off occurring during the transition from primary to secondary school. Of girls who were physically active in primary school, 43 per cent no longer felt that way once reaching secondary school.

At this time there are multiple factors that affect girls’ participation including disruption to friendship groups, the onset of puberty and declining body confidence and the increasing need to ‘fit in’ and be accepted amongst their peers. The biggest barriers reported by girls include:

  • having their period (38 per cent of secondary-aged girls)
  • not being confident (30 per cent of girls, across all ages)
  • not liking others watching them (28 per cent of girls, across all ages)
  • not liking getting hot and sweaty (27 per cent of girls, across all ages)
  • worrying about how they look (26 per cent of girls, across all ages).

Evidence shows girls from low-affluent families and/or from ethnically diverse communities experience even greater disadvantage and barriers to participation and are more likely to be less active than their peers. Girls of Asian, Black or Other ethnicities are less likely to be active compared with Girls of White British or White Other ethnicities. The below quote from a teacher in one of the targeted schools also demonstrates the challenge that schools in this area face when engaging girls in sport and physical activity:

We have a very mixed cohort of students. Quite a lot of them come from backgrounds that aren't very sporty. A lot of them leave to go and pick up younger siblings or they have jobs to do at home. It's not valued in their community. So we really struggle to get girls to stay and take part in sport at school, we really struggle."

Lead teacher

We therefore wanted to work together to provide a range of support to equip teachers with the knowledge and practice to support less-active targeted girls within their school and enable them to sustain and embed the approach as a long-term benefit of future students.

The solution

The Youth Sport Trust’s Girls Active programme has a set of underpinning principles that are effective in the engagement of girls in PE, sport and physical activity.  Central to this is to seek and understand the views of all girls, especially less active girls in order to understand the barriers they experience to participation. 

We wanted to ensure that the support offered through the Girls Active programme was supporting girls in targeted communities most likely to experience inequality, disadvantage and barriers to participation, recognising that children who are less active not only are more likely to experience health inequalities, but also experience a negative impact on learning.

The Active Partners Trust (across Nottingham & Derby) wanted to create opportunities for young people not currently accessing participation opportunities through the School Games and had identified key stage three (11-14) girls from low affluent families and/or ethnically diverse communities.

In Nottingham and Derby Cities we identified schools based on data (such as FSM, EAL, pupil premium) and local intelligence from School Games Organisers (who are nationally funded roles, working locally with a network of schools to develop and deliver school games opportunities for young people).  We held meetings with each school to discuss the opportunity, support and commitment required.

The support provided for schools across 2 years included:

  • teacher training and networking
  • teacher programme resources
  • access to a bespoke school survey and insight report
  • leadership training for girls
  • resources and kit for girls
  • consultant support for teachers
  • role model/mentoring supporting for girls
  • activation funding for a girls’ leadership group
  • opportunities for girls to co-design and deliver local events.

Following the first teacher training, each school recruited ten girls to form a Girls Leadership and Marketing Squad (GLAMS).  Supported by their teacher, they were empowered to take positive action to address the barriers their peers experience to taking part in PE, sport and physical activity in their school.  Each school completed the Girls Active survey giving them a personalised school insight report based on the responses from students. This helped teachers understand the views across the school and helped GLAMs to consult further with their peers to understand what improvements could be made and advocate the changes girls wanted.  GLAMs helped their teacher to develop and market new opportunities or make changes to make PE, sport and physical activity relevant more girls.

Role models were, additionally, a critical part of the support provided.  The Youth Sport Trust provided athlete mentors to support and deliver leadership training to the GLAMS.  The APT identified a team of local ambassadors, women in the local communities of the schools with relevant lived experience, who worked alongside the girls to support and mentor the GLAMS in their leadership role. 

She's very positive as a Muslim woman. A very positive role model, to see a Muslim woman that's keen and enthusiastic about sport to our cohorts. We have a lot of Muslim students here… the choice of Ambassadors, they were all great, but as a role model for our students she was a great choice."

Lead teacher

Together the Ambassadors and GLAMS co-designed a Girls Active School Games event with each school bringing less-active or low-confidence girls to participate in the day.

The impact

An independent evaluation of the Girls Active programme in Nottingham and Derby Cities in 2023 by Sports Industry Research Centre (SIRC) at Shefield Hallam University identified a range of impact measures including:

  • 86 per cent of Girls Active leaders said they feel more confident to lead a team to achieve something

  • 97 per cent of Girls Active leaders and 58 per cent of participants feel more confident to take part in sport and physical activity

  • 89 per cent of Girls Active leaders and 62 per cent of participants feel more motivated to take part in sport and physical activity

  • 79 per cent of Girls Active leaders and 47 per cent of participants feel happier

  • 82 per cent of Girls Active leaders and 62 per cent of participants feel more resilient

  • 79 per cent of Girls Active leaders and 54 per cent of participants feel more engaged at school

  • 79 per cent of Girls Active leaders and 40 per cent of participants agreed that the programme has helped them feel more ready for the future.

Examples of qualitative feedback demonstrating impact from the evaluation include:

‘Midway through our second year of Girls Active, we can now see that the gains are far wider than we had previously anticipated. The original 30 Year 10 girls (who are now in Year 11) have grown as individuals and as a team, successfully coaching more than 170 children from 6 local primary schools in a range of indoor bowls activities. Their confidence, engagement levels and positive attitudes to sport and physical activity have increased and, as a result, we have noted a dramatic improvement in attendance in lessons.’ – Lead teacher

‘The impact is massive… the impact on those girls, individually and collectively, is huge. It's massive. It's a confidence boost. It's not just their school Girls Active sporting mode, it's society saying to them that they matter and that we care about them. I know that's quite an emotive fluffy thing to say, but I can 99.9% feel confident and say that that's what the impact is. That's what it means to these girls.’ – Ambassador

‘It's a massive honour to be able to say I know that we've helped all these girls. I wanted to inspire them all and make them want to be GLAM. We're all a lot more confident. We're talking to people because we've had to plan events and stuff, but it's a lot easier now.’ – Girls Active leader

‘I do think that the girls that are leaders, I think they have come on massively, and it's got to the point where other subjects’ members of staff have been commenting on how they've been answering more questions, or volunteering to do roles, or read something out in a lesson. They've come on lots.’ – Lead teacher

‘The things that I have learnt through being a Girl Active Leader is that being a female role-model can influence other females to have faith and believe in themselves. It has also made my confidence boost up. I learned that it really doesn't matter the shape or size of anyone's body, everyone is equal and can do the same things as others can do.’ – Girls Active leader

‘Above all, the girls now recognise that their voice is valued and that we have their needs and interests at our heart. Where once they were reluctantly ‘compliant’ in PE, now they are taking an active interest in its delivery and enthused about what they want to do.’ – Delivery lead

An example of the impact of the Girls Active programme in one particular school is detailed below.

School Context: 47.7 per cent students receive free school meals, 87 per cent of students are from ethnically diverse communities and 63 per cent of students’ first language is not English. 

Since 2021, the PE department has driven a different approach to the delivery of PE across the school. Data and findings from student voice surveys from Girls Active identified pupil grouping in PE was a key issue to engagement, and many girls didn’t feel the skills learnt in PE were important or relevant. The whole PE department undertook rigorous planning to plan and pilot a new PE curriculum to deliver to pupils needs and motivations, trialling a new approach in September 2022.

The curriculum incorporated character traits as an explicit aspect of lessons, resulting in a focus on both physical and character-based learning objectives within each lesson. Pathways were introduced giving students’ the choice of two journeys where the same activities, physical and character traits were delivered through different pathways. The participation pathway provided more choice of who they work with in groups and greater emphasis on student-led than teacher-led activities, and the performance pathway for girls designed for those who want to be more competitive, skills-focussed, and play regular fixtures, or plan to opt for opt GCSE PE.

In addition to taking a sustained long-term approach to curriculum design, the school has fully embraced Girls Active principles by ensuring girls have a voice and a choice. For three years in succession, the school has recruited and appointed a Girls Active Leadership and Marketing Squad in years 9, 10 and 11. Each year group works closely with the PE department with a responsibility to consult with their peers to identify barriers that stop them engaging in PE and cocurricular opportunities. As a result, there is a culture of girls feeling their opinions are valued, improved relationships between girls and staff, alongside the relationship girls have with PE, sport and physical activity. 

The girls have become role models for other girls across the school which not only increases girls’ perceptions and self-belief but also raises their aspirations and desire to become a role model themselves. The department has seen a significant increase in the number of girls now choosing accredited courses (e.g. GCSE PE) in comparison to previous years. There has also been a significant growth in the offer of co-curricular opportunities and the number of girls attending.

How is the new approach being sustained

The evaluation identified most schools were able to confidently say that they will continue delivering the programme. As original GLAMS progressed through the school, new cohorts of GLAMS were being identified and schools cited that girls aspired to be a GLAM having seen their older peers undertake the role. Aside from continuing to deliver the programme within the school, many schools were building and developing the programme in different ways, based on the responses from girls. One school explained that they plan to expand the programme by targeting parents, in turn aiming to tackle some of the cultural issues, such as parents’ lack of willingness to allow their children to engage in sport and physical activity, particularly after school.

The Youth Sport Trust developed an online set of teacher training modules (Girls Active Getting Started) that could support any school, should a new teacher start in the school, or should a teacher want to revisit an element of the training. The APT continues to work with the schools and are engaging additional schools and building on other local relationships such as the university.

Lessons learned

Education workforce – consider how to retain school engagement in the programme with staff turnover and competing priorities for staff.  Providing a range of support (training, mentoring, in school, school-to-school support) and how to adapt to ensure support is needs led.

Advocacy – support lead teachers to be able to advocate to senior leaders the wider benefits of PE in contributing to whole-school priorities (attendance, behaviour, engagement, attainment).

Role models – providing a range of relevant, relatable role models, consider also the training, support and processes they will require when working with young people.

Communication and support – develop clear roles and responsibilities between partners and consider how and when schools need support and the most effective way to communicate with them depending on the task.