21/01/15 – Q&A with Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson on Pathways into Sport

Speaker: Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson

Wednesday 21 January 2015

Chair: Baroness Benjamin

Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson introduced herself as a 5 time Paralympian and Cross-Bench Peer, with a further background on the boards of organisations including the Sports Council.  Her particular interests include pathways into sport and grass roots sport.

She stated that the challenge is that public conversation is currently about “sport” when what is meant is physical activity and physical literacy. To the outside world and many young women, ‘sport’ means ‘cross country running’. There are some key issues to be addressed concerning body image and insecurity for young girls. Research for ‘Women in Sport’ suggests that if more is done, such as having hair dryers and straighteners in changing rooms, more girls and women will wish to engage. Lee Valley White Water Centre is one of the venues currently supplying such items in changing rooms.

Organisations should incentivise activities that are appealing to young people. Ideally, more communication should take place between sporting and health interests.

It would be useful in advancing policy aims, to remove sport from DCMS where it presents as an afterthought, maybe placing it within a separate Department. Few women are physically healthy. Most primary school teachers are women, who had negative experiences of PE when growing up. Teaching PE is a responsible task; for appropriately qualified professionals.

In a recent report written for the Welsh Assembly Baroness Thompson made the key recommendation that PE should be embedded in the school  curriculum as a core subject.

Research on the differences in the ways in which mothers treat sons and daughters is definitive. A project led by the Baroness in Israel/Palestine was successful in encouraging mothers and daughters to engage in joint sporting activity. Similarly, Sport England’s campaign, ‘This Girl Can’ is innovative.

Particular Governing Bodies failing to support women appropriately should incur a cut in their funding streams. Attitudes which put barriers in the way of young women’s participation should be challenged. One of the important reasons to pursue fresh approaches is the prevalence of an obesity epidemic. Some young women who are currently competing and those who have recently retired, are energetic campaigners for these issues and provide role models for other women.  Heather Watson broke a taboo recently when she accounted for a below-par performance by stating that she had been menstruating.

At this point Baroness Benjamin joined the meeting.

Questions, comments and discussion

The contributor agreed with the emphasis being placed on physical activity – not just sport, research suggests that children want access to different types of activity. Think Tank 2020 Health published a report on the concept of “head of wellbeing” in schools, a role which would coordinate PSE/PE etc. in schools. This is being trialled at present.

On the subject of body image, the contributor asked what the speaker’s thoughts were on Photoshop and the media manipulation of photos.

Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson: There should be media regulation. Women in Sport carried out research which found that young women preferred to be “thin” than “healthy”. It is hard, but some actresses have stood up to photo shopping. There needs to be a way to break down ideas of girls wanting to be wags, but it is very hard.

Baroness Benjamin: Reminded those assembled that the APG is all about getting people to confront attitudes such as this.

The contributor liked the idea of moving sport from recreation to health because looking at obesity should be done in a holistic way.

In “Early Years” the emphasis is on making exercise fun. The challenge is with practitioners who have not had good experiences of physical activity in their childhood. There is a need to promote physical activity for the early years curriculum.

Do you have any ideas how children who are not interested in exercise or sport can become engaged?

Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson: For the early years, some of it comes back to training, it would be easy to make it part of the training for early years staff.

One of the problems with 2012 was the obsession with elite sport. People need to be given the skills to teach, the government needs to make changes.

Is one of the problems with governing bodies the fact that their overwhelmingly male make-up perpetuates the problem?

Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson: Governing bodies are concerned with a certain level of sport in the UK; it is notable that there are 6 publicly funded national sports in the UK which have no women on their boards. They should have their funding cut.

In reference to the report written for the Welsh Assembly, what is happening to the report, will it be implemented?

Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson: Whilst the Special Advisors were nervous, there was support from the relevant organisations in Wales and the Ministers liked it. However the education attainment results in Wales (which had fallen) meant that the report lost attention. It is notable to make a comparison between the reaction to the drop in Maths and English attainment and that of sport/physical activity. There needs to be more recognition of the value of PE in schools.

Can this group do anything?

Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson: It will be easy for Wales to implement the required changes, once that is done, it would be easier to introduce in England.

The outdoor environment in schools has an impact; Primary schools have decreased the amount of playtime. For PE in schools subjects such as dance should be included (as something girls do and enjoy). Walking to school has decreased in the UK. The built environment and walking to school are important. Simple games (from childhood) should be brought back into school and children’s lives.

Of 7 years spent at Primary School, 1.7 of those were spent playing. At the schools where I run projects (primary school programmes on play), the heads do understand the importance of physical activity. Early years training is important, get it into teacher training and show them how to put it into practice, there also needs to be training on this for lunchtime staff.

The group noted that the DfE is funding projects under the umbrella of “Character effectiveness”, which the group agreed was actually represented in play and physical activity.

Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson: The terminology used is significant; “diet” is a word that has been hijacked, in the same way, “sport” is thought of at elite level. How can this be changed to get people to think about it as simply being “active”. This is difficult but important.

Baroness Benjamin informed the group that, in the following week she was to meet representatives from Waitrose to discuss the findings of the group’s last report and the issues of concern to the All Party Group in general.

Baroness Benjamin thanked the speaker, the attendees and closed the meeting.