The England women’s football team has said “every girl in the nation” should be offered the opportunity to play football at school, following their stunning victory in the Euros.
The Lionesses also called on the government to ensure all girls can access a minimum of two hours of physical education (PE) a week.
It comes as new polling found that almost half of secondary teachers said they had not seen girls at their schools playing football outside of lesson time.
The Lionesses’ intervention follows their win in the final on Sunday, when they beat Germany 2-1 at Wembley.
In an open letter to Conservative leadership candidates Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss, posted on social media on Wednesday, the team said they saw their feat “as only the beginning”.
“The reality is we are inspiring young girls to play football, only for many to end up going to school and not being able to play,” it reads.
“Women’s football has come a long way. But it still has a long way to go.”
The national curriculum for PE does not differentiate by gender, leaving it up to schools to decide whether girls have equal access to football.
But academies do not have to follow the national curriculum, and there is no statutory guidance on how many hours PE schools must provide, despite it being a compulsory subject.
Non-statutory DfE guidance on gender separation in mixed schools says that while schools can have boys-only football teams, they would still need to provide opportunities for girls to take part “in comparable sporting activities”.
Only 63% of schools offer equal access to football
But recent data from England Football – part of the Football Association (FA) – shows that only 63 per cent of all schools in England offer equal football coaching to both boys and girls.
The figure is even lower for secondary schools, with only 44 per cent offering equal access to football in PE lessons.
As well as asking the next government to ensure girls are offered football sessions, the letter calls for “all girls to have access to a minimum of 2hrs a week PE”.
The Lionesses’ letter also raises the “need to invest in and support female teachers” as “key role models” to young girls.
The squad said they had experienced not being able to play at school while growing up, but “despite the odds, we just kept playing football.”
“We have made incredible strides in the women’s game, but this generation of school girls deserve more,” it continues.
“They deserve to play football at lunchtime, they deserve to play football in PE lessons and they deserve to believe they can one day play for England. We want their dreams to also come true.”
Secondary schoolgirls unlikely to play football at break
Just as fewer girls have access to football at secondary schools than primary schools, older girls are also less likely to take up the sport at breaktime, according to a poll.
The Teacher Tapp survey of 6,597 teachers on Sunday found that 43 per cent of secondary teachers said they had not seen girls playing football outside lessons, compared to 9 per cent of primary teachers.
Twenty-two per cent of primary teachers saw girls playing the sport at breaks and lunchtime every day, compared with just 6 per cent of secondary teachers.
Meanwhile, 24 per cent of primary teachers saw girls playing football most days and only 10 per cent of secondary teachers observed the same thing.
Sunak has already pledged to improve access if his leadership bid is successful. His campaign said he would tighten accountability around the primary PE and sport premium, and ask Ofsted to inspect sport in schools during every visit.
“He has also committed to launch a review of women’s football immediately if he is made prime minister to make sure that all women and girls have the opportunity to take part in the beautiful game.”
A spokesperson for Truss said she wanted “equal access to all sports for boys and girls and supports campaigns such as the FA’s Let Girls Play campaign”.
They said Truss was also “committed to investigating what prevents schools from delivering the recommended minimum of two hours PE per week”, and would look at “how best to deliver” for girls in her first spending review.
Replace ‘outdated guidance’, says Labour
The Lionesses’ demands come after Labour published its own open letter to the government on equal access in school sports earlier on Wednesday.
It follows a report from inews that the DfE “refused to commit” to guaranteeing that girls would be offered the same football lessons as boys in school, instead sticking to current guidance that they should be offered “comparable activities”.
Under the guidelines, mixed schools can have boys-only football teams but “would still have to allow girls equal opportunities to participate in comparable sporting activities.”
Netball, badminton, tennis and rounders are suggested as comparable sports within the national curriculum. Schools however, ultimately decide which sports they teach.
In the letter to the education secretary James Cleverly, his shadow counterpart Bridget Phillipson condemned the “outdated” guidance which “limits the options of boys and girls and does nothing to break down traditional barriers”.
“The country has come together to celebrate the Lionesses’ stunning victory, now we need to come together to secure that legacy and deliver equal access to sport for women and girls.”
DfE denies it ‘refused’ to commit to equal access
In a blog published on Wednesday, the DfE said claims it had “refused” to commit to ensuring girls’ equal access to football in PE lessons were “untrue”.
“The national curriculum for PE in schools does not differentiate in relation to sex, but schools may choose to have single-sex PE lessons or sports teams.”
It added that schools base their decisions on what sports to teach on factors including available equipment and facilities.
“Where schools choose to offer different sports to girls and boys, for example to respond to demand, we expect them to make every effort to offer a comparable sport which uses similar tactics and has similar objectives, i.e attacking and defending strategies.”
The government also said it support the FA’s ambition to give girls equal access to football in schools and clubs by 2024, and was ensuring greater access to physical activity and competitive sports through strategies such as the School Sport and Activity Action Plan and the ‘Your Time’ programme.