100,000 more girls playing football in England as activity levels rebound

Posted: 9th December 2022

Source: The Guardian

Girls’ participation in football up dramatically in five years, and children now as active as before pandemic.

There are now 100,000 more girls playing football than there were five years ago, according to an annual survey of children’s fitness by Sport England, which also found secondary school girls are more active than they have ever been.

Overall, children’s activity levels have recovered to pre-pandemic levels, but the Active Lives survey revealed that not all groups have made the same progress, with children aged seven to nine lagging behind, their activity levels still 4.5% below where they were before Covid.

More than 777,000 girls had played football in a formal setting in the week of the survey, the results suggest, with numbers playing informally – for example, having a kickabout in the park or against a wall – up by 200,000 since 2017.

Sport England said long-term development of the women’s game at all levels was starting to pay dividends. “We are really excited about this,” said Nick Pontefract, Sport England’s chief strategy officer. “The FA have invested heavily, as have we, in women’s football for a number of years now and it looks like it’s making a difference.”

The 2021-22 survey was conducted prior to the phenomenal success of the Lionesses at the women’s Euros this summer. “We are hopeful there will be another boost once that flows through in the next data release this time next year,” Pontefract said.

The survey findings, based on responses from more than 100,000 children aged five to 16, show 47.2% – equating to 3.4 million children in England – were active, meeting the chief medical officer’s guideline recommendation of taking part in sport or physical activity for at least 60 minutes a day.

This is an increase of 219,000 children compared with 2020-21, which is positive progress after the decline in physical activity caused by the pandemic. However, Sport England says it is “troubled” that so many children still fall short of the recommended level of physical activity, with 2.2 million active for less than 30 minutes a day on average.

On the low activity levels reported for seven- to nine-year-olds, Pontefract suggested the disruption caused by the pandemic meant this age group had lost valuable time at school where PE classes, sports clubs and teams help form good habits.

The survey also found that activity among black boys remains low. Despite an increase on last year’s levels, the number who are active is 7.7% lower than pre-pandemic. Inequality is a key factor, with 42% of children from low-income families meeting recommended daily levels, compared with 52% from high-income families.

Despite the success of girls’ football, the gender activity gap between boys and girls persists, with boys 5% more likely to be active than girls.

The survey found that more children and young people are getting active to help with their mental wellbeing, and many of the activities they are choosing take place in group settings, including team sports, dance, gym or fitness.

“This indicates there is a social element to the recovery of activity levels,” Sport England said. The findings show that team sports participation has gone up – including a 3.3% increase in numbers playing basketball – but still remains below pre-pandemic levels.

Sport England’s chief executive, Tim Hollingsworth, said: “It is encouraging to see that activity levels for children and young people have recovered to pre-pandemic levels. But we have a long way to go still to change the overall level to where it needs to be, to help children and young people from all backgrounds enjoy the benefits of sport and physical activity.”

Sport England’s Active Lives Children and Young People survey is the biggest annual snapshot of children’s and young people’s activity, and is based on Office for National Statistics data.

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