Skip to main content

Telephone 015395 60060

Is There a Place for Mixed School Sport?

by Neil Rollings

Co-education was late to the educational party. Almost all of the early schools were single sex, with the foundation of many boys’ schools having a fifty year start on the girls. Even when comprehensivisation brought mixed schools to the state system in the 1970s and 80s, physical activity was very separate, often with sex-specific facilities and staff and usually at opposite ends of the school. Most independent schools that are now co-educational began life as boys schools and took girls at varying stages in the last quarter of the twentieth century, not always for the altruistic educational reasons which they claimed.

In the early years of co-education, numbers of girls were often small, and unstable. They were not always welcome in cultures that recognised achievement in Rugby through special blazers and honours boards. Girls’ sport was undertaken in a pioneering spirit, deploying resources left over from the boys’ programme and fighting for recognition. As numbers settled, and female school populations grew, the aim was to have a programme which operated in the way that it always had for the boys. Hockey in the autumn term was a direct equivalent for Rugby: Netball after Christmas allowed boys to use the astro pitches whilst the girls put the tennis courts – usually derelict in the winter – to good use for Netball. The sports were different, the facilities and staff were different, and never the twain shall meet. Even when boys teams and girls teams came to have opponents in common, the fixtures were rarely on the same day.

Mature co-education brought some modifications. Changing attitudes in society made traditional sports that were previously male-dominated, typically Cricket and various codes of football, part of the girls’ experience. Occasionally girls appeared in ‘boys’ teams, notably in Cricket. The first ones were regarded with suspicion. Changing attitudes to gender issues complicated the situation further. School sport for the sexes moved closer, but they were still slow to get on the same bus to the same destination.

The sector has been slow to work out what co-educational school sport means, or looks like. Is it boys and girls having access to the same activities? Is it sharing staff and facilities? Would it be mixed combined days against a similar opponent?

A feature that is rarely considered is mixed sport. Teams comprising of males and females playing together. Against mixed teams from other schools, as part of the regular fixture programme and alongside the traditional teams. Some sports are better suited to this than others: Hockey, Netball, Tennis, Badminton, Cricket, Golf are all games where mixed teams have always existed (though not always in UK). The Victorians invented Lawn Tennis, and Badminton for precisely this reason. It happens in club sport, but infrequently in schools.

Sports programmes have widened incrementally over the last 25 years. A relentless diet of Rugby, Hockey, Netball and Cricket has been leavened with new activities, new facilities and greater choice. Association Football is part of the programme of twice as many schools as it was at the turn of the millennium. Mixed sport will not be a replacement for this, nor will it satisfy pupils striving for the highest achievement in traditional games. However, it could be a bigger part of the programmes of the future. It is a legitimate dimension of an ever broader sports offer, aimed at engaging a wider spectrum of pupils in sport and physical activity. It isn’t something that must be confined to the end of term, and conducted in fancy dress.