As I walked over to lunch the other day, I was intercepted by two Year 8 girls who requested that we set up a Pétanque club (they play on the BHPC pistes next to the bandstand and are keen to share the game with others); on Wednesday, I received a delegation of Year 9s campaigning for more robust bike racks (I explained that improved bike and scooter storage has been factored into our development plans, but we would look into short-term solutions); on Tuesday, we cheered from afar as our Year 6 tennis team made a tournament final and, on Wednesday, the Under-13 cricketers emerged victorious against Hurst in their first game of the season.
Not to be outdone, the teachers are getting involved, too: 20 people turned out for staff rounders last Friday and there have been requests for a re-match this week; Mr Baynes has booked the Yellow Wave volleyball courts and is inviting staff to sign up; meanwhile, Mr Gregory is limbering up for his new role as Head of Wellbeing and is exploring cricket, taekwondo and kick-boxing as part of our own Brighton Girls brand of mindfulness and resilience-building; and Mrs Watson is busy finalising plans for Activity Week at the end of term, which will see all Senior year groups engaged a full week off-timetable – community service, paddle-boarding and sailing on Hove Lagoon and Sports Day will all form part of the experience.
With unprecedented numbers attending Athletics training and places being snapped up for our Brighton Girls Skateboard Club, what is going on? It has to be something to do with the thirst for activity we anticipated coming out of lockdown – and it is important that we seize the moment.
We’re not the only ones talking about how the pandemic has prompted us to rethink the relationship between girls and sport. In fact, it cropped up on BBC Radio 4 Woman’s Hour last week, with a full episode dedicated to women and cycling. The programme cited figures from Sport England which showed the number of women cycling between the beginning of April and the end of May last year doubled – the first lockdown prompting many to feel safer on the quieter roads. Now that the roads are busy again (arguably more so than ever), there is a danger of losing the advantage: many women feel fearful, intimidated and out-of-place on the roads; in a sport perceived as being male-dominated, and in a world of road rage and tooting horns, female cyclists can often feel unwelcome.
This same theme emerged recently during a conversation with the co-founders of a new charity called Make Space for Girls. Researchers, Imogen and Susannah, had read the story about our Skateboard Club and were keen to make contact as they believe passionately in changing the way that our parks and public spaces are designed. They aim to reclaim public spaces, to make them as welcoming for teenage girls as they are for teenage boys; they want to literally ‘make space’ for girls. We talked about how much money has been invested in public parks, but how often these urban spaces (skate parks, BMX tracks and MUGAs) are dominated by boys. By creating facilities that are essentially enclosed, these spaces (like the roads) become hostile arenas – intimidating, exclusive and unappealing to girls.
At Brighton Girls, we are doing our best to change this. Level 2 Bikeability lessons have been offered to our Year 6 students this term and we are liaising with the Council to arrange Level 3 courses for Senior students. The hope is that more girls will feel confident to take to the roads. In addition, over 40 girls from Year 5 upwards have taken part in skateboard sessions over the last two weeks – it has been brilliant to see such enthusiasm for this alternative sport and to witness how quickly barriers can be broken down. Sarah Brownlow, our lead coach, is on a mission to equip girls with the knowledge and the confidence they need to enter the skate park arena: minutes into the first session, the girls were armed with the correct terminology (“decks”, “bolts”, “grip tape”, “trucks”); they were inducted into park etiquette, namely what to shout when the board flies away from you (you shout “Board!”, in case you were wondering). The hope is that, when they enter the fray, their sheer numbers will act as a shield.
With skateboarding, as with cycling, and, in fact, with any occupation, representation and increased visibility make a huge difference. As one interviewee on Woman’s Hour, when asked for advice about how to deal with aggressive drivers “hooting” or “shaking their fist”, said –
“If they are hooting at you, then they’ve seen you, so that’s one positive thing to take away… give a thank you, give a thumbs-up, that will help the situation…”
There’s a positive message there for us all – be visible, self-possessed and band together. Watch out world, here we come!