Labour demands equal access guarantee for school sports as legacy of Euros win

Katie Neame

Labour’s Bridget Phillipson has demanded that the government deliver an ‘equal access guarantee’ for school sports to “secure the legacy” of the England women’s football team’s victory at the Euros.

The Lionesses beat Germany 2-1 on Sunday in extra time – England’s first major women’s tournament victory ever and the country’s first major competition win since the 1966 men’s World Cup.

The Shadow Education Secretary said today: “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.

“The Conservatives have consistently failed to build on our sporting successes and must not continue to hide behind outdated guidance which is limiting girls’ access to sport at school.

“Labour is calling on the government to seize this moment and deliver an equal access guarantee so every child gets to experience all sports on offer at school.”

Phillipson has written to James Cleverly calling for an equal access guarantee following reports that the Department for Education (DfE) is refusing to commit to ensuring that girls have equal access to football in schools.

The i reported on Tuesday that government guidance does not guarantee girls will be offered the same football lessons as boys, saying instead they should be offered “comparable activities”.

Asked whether the DfE would reconsider its focus on “comparable” sports for girls, a DfE spokesperson said: “Schools can decide what sports they offer and should aim to take their pupils’ views into account on which activities they want to be able to do.”

In her letter to the Education Secretary, Phillipson declared that the Lionesses’ success “cannot be the finale” but “must be the key to unlock a future in which women and girls’ sport is supported to thrive”.

She called on Cleverly to introduce an equal access guarantee, which she argued must start with replacing the “outdated” commitment that pupils be given access to “comparable sporting activity”.

The Labour frontbencher told her opposite number: “This limits the options of boys and girls and does nothing to break down traditional access barriers. The government should be playing an active role in building a world where no child is excluded from a sport their schoolmates are playing.”

She highlighted the Football Association’s girls’ football school partnerships as one of a number of “brilliant programmes in schools” expanding access to sport and called on the government to adopt the FA’s target of ensuring girls have equal access to football in schools by 2024.

Phillipson expressed concern that children’s sports more generally are being “neglected” and asked Cleverly to outline the steps ministers are taking to boost sport in schools.

Lucy Powell urged the government on Monday not to miss the “open-goal opportunity” of England’s Euros win, declaring the team’s success a “potential game-changing moment” for the women’s game.

The Shadow Culture Secretary declared that the Tories have a “terrible record of building on our sports stars’ success with a real and lasting legacy”. Labour highlighted the London 2012 Olympics and Paralympics as an example of the government’s poor record.

The National Audit Office (NAO) found that the proportion of adults participating in sport at least once a week fell in the three years following the Games, despite government pledge that increasing grassroots sport participation would be a focus of the event’s long-term legacy.

Below is the full text of the letter to James Cleverly.

Dear James,

Re: Protecting the legacy of the Lionesses’ historic win with equal access to sport in school

I am writing off the back of the Lionesses’ brilliant and inspirational win in the UEFA Women’s Euro tournament on Sunday. As many have said, this fantastic achievement cannot be the finale – it must be the key to unlock a future in which women and girls’ sport is supported to thrive.

With that mission in mind, I am seriously concerned that, under your leadership, the Department for Education is refusing to support equal access to sport in schools. As Secretary of State, will you seize on this historic moment and to set out an ‘equal access guarantee’, so girls and boys have equal opportunity to play and enjoy different sports in school?

This must start with replacing the Department’s outdated commitment that pupils will have access to a ‘comparable sporting activity’. This limits the options of boys and girls and does nothing to break down traditional access barriers. The government should be playing an active role in building a world where no child is excluded from a sport their schoolmates are playing. Will you set out new guidance and best-practice examples to support schools to implement an equal access guarantee?

Next, there are already some brilliant programmes in schools that are expanding access to sports, one of which is the FA girls’ football school partnerships. Will the Department commit to build on programmes such as this, as a way to join-up a national mission and ensure equal access? The FA girls’ football school partnerships has a vision to ensure girls have equal access to football in school by 2024. In order to mark the historic achievement of the Lionesses’ and strengthen the momentum behind this vision, the government should adopt and champion the FA’s target.

More widely, I am concerned that children’s sports are being neglected, with 36,000 fewer hours of PE being taught in schools compared to 2011. Children’s activity levels still haven’t recovered since the pandemic, with over half of children not meeting the recommended 60 minutes a day of sport. More than a third don’t do even half an hour a day. What steps is the government taking to boost school sport and will you finally back the commitment of Labour’s children’s recovery programme to deliver an expanded range of after-school clubs and activities to help expand access to sport?

Finally, I want to echo the calls of my colleague Lucy Powell, Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, who has rightly been challenging the government to urgently bring forward the promised review of women’s football, with school and grassroots football, proper support for a talent pathways and respect for the game across the leagues front and centre.

It is past time for the government to fully back sport for women and girls, so I urge you to mark this extraordinary moment with ambitious steps to open up school sports for all children, helping create the Lionesses of the future.

Given the high level of public interest in this matter, I will be releasing a copy of this letter to the press.

Yours sincerely,

Bridget Phillipson

Shadow Education Secretary

MP for Houghton and Sunderland South

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