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What Does Co-Educational School Sport Really Mean?

by Neil Rollings

The history of education in the UK is firmly rooted in single sex provision.  The only secondary education in the 19th century was for boys, and the opportunities which emerged for girls in the early 20th century were deliberately separate.  When maintained secondary schools emerged, many were single sex; even when comprehensivisation brought co-educational schools, provision for physical activity and sport remained resolutely distinct – often with separate facilities, and certainly with gender-specific staff.  There were -emphatically – sports which were for boys, and others than were for girls.There was no overlap. Almost all mixed independent schools were boys’ schools which took girls.  Several years were necessary to establish mature co-education, with stable numbers year to year. Sport remains the final battleground of this process.

National competitions reinforce the fact that the legacy of boys and girls playing separately remains strong.  Regular school fixtures, and almost all cups, are firmly single sex, and inevitably therefore drive the programme that they are intended to support. In an era when inclusion, equity and diversity are a major focus of school life, physical activity has lagged behind.  In many schools, there remains distinct provision, separate departments, and gender-based management.  The Head of Girls’ Games remains alive and well in many environments.

It is unsurprising, therefore, that there remains confusion about exactly what co-educational provision for sport and exercise should look like. A variety of interpretations exists. At one extreme, all sports teaching is in mixed groups; for others it is all pupils introduced to the same sports.  Some feel that it is equivalent opportunities, but in different sports, where others assume that having girls in boys’ teams ticks that box.  The higher the school’s profile of inter-school sport, the greater the gender separation, reflecting the character of the competition programme.  In these environments, teams of boys and girls get on separate buses to different destinations every match day: only those pupils who have proved beyond reasonable doubt that they have no role in sports fixtures might encounter mixed-gender sessions.   The unintended consequence then is that co-education is confined to pupils of lower ability and interest.

No-one planned it to be this way.  Other areas of school life have found a meaningful, mixed environment easier to achieve.  Drama and music have a comfortable accommodation of the sexes, as do academic subjects.  Physical activity, and sport in particular, have found it more difficult to accommodate. 

There are unique obstacles, that go beyond tradition.  Established gender differences impact upon physical activity.  These include maturation rates, attitudes to competition, influence of peers and NGB regulations.   Engagement of both sexes with mixed sessions varies: body-consciousness and clothing expectations also impact upon enthusiasm for participation.  There are well-known barriers to at different ages and stages, and the environment is one of them.  Gender dysphoria complicates the issue further.

So, what might a successful co-educational programme of sport and exercise look like? 

Some dimensions are uncontroversial, and should be relatively easy to achieve. These include a commitment to equality of opportunity, where this means both quality and quantity of provision.  Parallel mechanisms of recognition,  communications and structures are relatively straightforward to achieve: special clothing and token of achievement are easily standardised.  Opportunities to take part in competitions, tours and cups can be regulated and measured.

Other issues are more complex.  Establishing a comparable culture of commitment, and ambition amongst both staff and pupils is a more subtle aspiration, and one less easily measured.  Encouraging gender-blind dedication and pupil enthusiasm has significant cultural impact, but requires a level of leadership that not all school sport enjoys.   However, until this foundation is achieved, tinkering with programme issues is irrelevant.  Co-educational attitudes, expectations and behaviours are difficult to define and build, but are at the heart of successful provision.

Once this cultural foundation is laid, the programme issues can be addressed.   Several sports will be predominantly confined to one sex, both by popularity and competition assumptions.  Any pupils wishing to be involved should have the opportunity to do so, but it should not be necessary to ensure a compulsory experience to fulfil expectations of inclusivity.  Access to culturally significant games is the crux of the issue.  Much, but not all, of this may be gender-based. 

Newly co-educationalised opportunities, in games such as Soccer and Cricket present different philosophical challenges.  The most able girls can be accommodated on merit in what are still known as ‘boys’ teams - though in practice simply become ‘open’ ones.  This in itself doesn’t make the programme co-educational.   Providing comparable opportunity in groups where all members are comfortable and fully involved is a wider challenge.  Gender-blind ability groups are one possible solution. 

Mixed sports still have a surprisingly low profile, especially for the most able.  Even in sports where men and women have competed alongside each other for many years, such as Hockey and Tennis, schools have been slow to adopt these in competition.  They may feature in ‘recreational’ programmes (often low-standard, frivolous ‘youth-club’ style activity sessions), but serve only to reinforce the subliminal stereotype that mixed sport can’t be serious.

Conditioning sessions present additional complications.  Whilst it is easy to make the gym open to both genders, establishing an environment where are all comfortable to attend is more difficult.  Where this is a barrier, making some sessions single sex may be necessary, at least in the short term.

Other resourcing challenges exist.  Female role models are often in short supply, and staffing girls sport is frequently more difficult. Men are involved in coaching girls much more than the other way round.  This is particularly the case in schools where classroom teachers contribute to games coaching.   This has a place in gender-blind provision, but beyond a certain level of frequency, reinforces a climate of male domination.  Schools need to be planning for what the future of the mixed workforce will be.

A co-educational culture will not emerge overnight.  Dismantling alpha male expectations about the primacy of boys’ sport will take at least a generation of pupils. Firm and inflexible ‘rules’ and operating procedures are unlikely to be helpful.  More individual accommodations are likely than in previous eras, underlain by a commitment to equal opportunity. 

Co-education is not just a programme.  It is a philosophical assumption, and a guiding principle.  Its success will be based on establishing a culture based on pupil attitudes and behaviours.  The sport-specific issues will be addressed along the way, but rules alone won’t achieve change.  School sport and exercise is on a journey.  It’s a continuum that begun in Tom Brown’s Schooldays, and is heading towards a future that is yet undefined.  Gender blindness is one of the speed ramps along the way.

This article first appeared in ‘School Sport Magazine’.  Summer 2022 edition

Neil Rollings is Managing Director of Independent Coach Education, UK’s biggest provider of sports training, recruitment and advisory services for schools.