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WATCH | Why the Irish school system is failing girls in sport

Ciaran Bradley
Ciaran Bradley

20:19 9 Mar 2021

The school system in Ireland is currently failing girls with their approach to sport and physical education, according to teacher and broadcaster Emer O'Neill.

O'Neill is a physical education teacher and joined Nora Stapleton of Sport Ireland on how to improve teaching of sport in schools, as part of the #OTBFuture series.

Stapleton discussed Sport Ireland's 'Adolescent Girls Get Active' report, which concludes with the following eight principles for success:

  • No judgement
  • Invoke excitement
  • Clear emotional reward
  • Open eyes to what is there
  • Build on existing habits
  • Give girls a voice and choice
  • Champion what’s in it for them
  • Expand image of what ‘sporty’ looks like

Those aspects are dependent on a functional education system delivering physical education to primary and secondary students alike.

That depends on having bespoke PE teachers at primary school, according to O'Neill.

Bespoke PE teachers for sport

"It is the same thing as if you don't like maths or history; having a good maths or history teacher you get the sense of confidence because you are learning more and enjoying it more. The same goes for the likes of PE.

"If you have a primary school teacher in fifth class that really isn't into sport, and PE consists of rolling a ball around a yard and having a bit of craic, then you aren't actually learning any fundamental skills.

"There is a primary school curriculum, but what I'm seeing a lot of the time is that it is not being followed. When I get students into the secondary level that they don't have the prerequisite skills to actually access the secondary curriculum.

"What I am finding is that I am having to dip back into the primary school curriculum and dip back into throwing, catching - even running fundamentals - before I can even get into team sports."

Ireland underperforming?

O'Neill drew comparison with her time spent teaching in the United States, where students spent at least one hour a day learning physical education. In contrast, oftentimes Irish schools will only do one hour per week of PE, in some cases.

Another exacerbator is the disparity in income between families at school, meaning some children gain extracurricular sports experience that creates something of a two-speed system in schools.

"There is a snowball effect because it depends on your socioeconomic background as to whether you can afford to do extracurricular activities outside of school.

"A lot of it is to do with having the time to do that as well, [my son] has training sessions three times a week and thankfully my husband is great at making sure he gets to those sessions.

"If you don't have that family backbone pushing it as well [...] kids, by the time they are 12 and 13, are so behind the ones that have done a sport outside of school."

'Not being good enough'

Stapleton says that the study found the idea of not being 'good enough' is a powerful barrier to participation among adolescent girls.

"It was surprising in a way that that was what came through really strongly.

"It is not even so much girls trying a sport once and leaving; there was a strong voice within the girls that they had a negative experience in the team sports. But we all know that team sports in Ireland are fantastic, so it is not to say that it is because of team sports.

"But those girls that labelled themselves as not good enough, it could have been that the competition element they were experiencing wasn't what they wanted to experience, or that they felt they weren't good enough to be part of the team.

"[They felt] it was embarrassing then to try and train with the team when the team were more focused on winning matches or getting a higher level of performance on the pitch. It comes back to the social element; they were with their friends [...] but it was at a point where they felt 'I am a weakness in the team.'"

'Sporty'

O'Neill says that a shift in perspective needs to occur in schools.

"We need to change that concept of 'I'm not sporty and think more about health and wellbeing. To maybe not use that word 'sporty' anymore because sport covers such an array of things.

"Females show in general studies that they prefer individual sports instead of team sports. Dance, aerobics, gymnastics, athletics, swimming - in PE in Ireland, those subjects are very rarely covered in the curriculum.

"Swimming, there is maybe 5% of schools in the country that have access to swimming as part of their curriculum. Similarly gymnastics; I know a lot of teachers who would be tentative to go into that area because there is such a high risk of injury.

"Dance is another, because if you are in mixed school, then you're thinking the boys won't like to do this, they will just be messing in class so we might as well scratch the whole thing. Again, girls miss out on something that they probably really have liked."

O'Neill teaches activities like yoga and meditation to get girls to find the 'love' for sport that will keep it as part of the routine of the child and adult.

Exams v Sport

That shift in perspective also needs to encompass a new approach to sport's involvement in examinations periods.

"We need to sit down and talk with parents and express that taking your children out of sports during examinations is actually the worst thing that you can do for them. It is so possible; I have done it myself where I was juggling probably four different teams in sixth year when I was doing the Leaving.

"It is definitely possible, and one thing that it taught me was discipline and time management - there are so many positives."

Are you a student, parent or teacher with an opinion you would like us to hear on this issue? Tweet us @offtheball with the hashtag #OTBFuture about your experiences of physical education in schools - and what you would do to improve it.

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