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Girls sport

What can music & creative education advocates learn from sports about behaviour change?

This week, I was at a meeting about the strategy for young people’s health and wellbeing in Gloucestershire*. A presentation from Active Gloucestershire really started me thinking. What could we in the cultural and creative learning sector – and particularly music – learn from sports charities about behaviour change?

The presentation was about Gloucestershire’s pilot ‘Girls Active’ initiative, which will help schools to understand what motivates girls to take part in physical activity (and why they don’t), and to make necessary changes to encourage girls to be more active.

In a nutshell, it follows a model developed by the Youth Sports Trust (in partnership with This Girl Can and Women in Sport, and funded by Sport England) which enables teachers to work with girls to make the necessary changes to their physical education, sport, and physical activity.

Youth Sports Trust – Girls Active – where did it start?

The Chief Medical Officers (CMO) recommend that all children and young people should engage in moderate to vigorous physical activity for at least 60 minutes every day. But research was showing:

  • secondary-age girls are more likely to experience barriers to participation than boys
  • the biggest drop-off occurs during transition from primary to secondary school.

The Youth Sports Trust set about to change this, running a pilot project in 20 schools – which has since rolled out and is now running in 450 schools in 2018. The results were:

Youth Sports Trust Girls Active - results

What does the Girls Active programme look like? 

  • the problem/gap –  physical activity levels among year 8 & 10 girls in Gloucestershire are consistently below that of boys (only 44% are achieving the recommended levels)
  • the partners – the pilot will take place in 8 schools and is a joint project with Active Gloucestershire, Gloucestershire Healthy Living and Learning and the Youth Sport Trust
  • sharing national research into motivation and barriers*:
    • a one-day teacher training for staff from each school
    • based on national research and evidence from YST
  • understanding local-level motivation and barriers:
    • helping schools to run consultation activities with girls
    • analysing and sharing results in school insight report
  • agreeing and monitoring actions based on local consultation and national intelligence:
    • a self-review framework
    • hard copy and electronic resources including case studies, evidence-based insight and support materials for teachers and students
    • peer review and leadership development: schools appoint GLAMs (Girls Leadership and Marketing Squad) who are mentored to work together to provide and ‘sell’ inspiring & relevant opportunities for all girls 

What does this have to do with music and creative learning?

You can guess where I’m going with this. Wouldn’t it be great if we had that same approach for creative activities? A recommendation from the Chief Medical Officers about number of hours of creative activity would be a start. And then a similar acceptance that creative activities are essential to young people’s wellbeing – with monitoring of schools and pupil population to ensure there is progress.

A lot of research and advocacy work has been done recently and is continuing, about the importance and value of creativity and culture in helping all ages live rich and healthy lives. Much of the evidence is around young people**. There’s also plenty of evidence about the value of different artforms for young people’s social and personal development as well as their education***.

But beyond that, what can we do as a sector, and as a music education sub-sector, to start understanding what the barriers are to taking part – particularly during/after transition from primary to secondary?

How do we encourage changes in attitudes to music, culture, creativity amongst young people, parents and teachers? To build confidence, and a feeling that ‘This girl/boy/teacher can’, ‘it’s for me, if I want it’ (rather than ‘you must do this, it’s good for you’).

Talking in terms of behaviour change

We don’t tend to talk about behaviour change or theory of change in the arts sector much (with notable exceptions). In the music education sector, that has a lot to do with most hubs being part of local authority music services (although that’s changing, particularly with those that are moving to trust or other independent status). So talking in these terms would be a start.

Also looking at models in other sectors like sports (Sports England have produced a series of resource to tackle inactivity, including real world examples of behaviour change projects). Further work could be done to explore and research behaviour change, behavioural economics and the work of the Behavioural Insights team who have worked in sports, but not as far as I’m aware in arts/culture.

We could then add ‘attitudinal barriers’ to those used in the inclusive music sector (ie economic, life condition, life circumstances, emotional and behavioural difficulties – see Youth Music’s definition of challenging circumstances).

Where are we now – the baseline?

The next bit would involve us getting a real picture of where we are now. We know that data collection from schools is a challenge, and the Music Education Hubs key data report is unreliable for this and other reasons. And if we’re looking at behaviour change, we really need to look to attitudinal data from parents and schools.

Looking to local authority –level data

Gloucestershire has one of the world’s largest regional surveys of young people – the online pupil survey – which this year had responses from 32,000 young people. There are questions about physical activity but not about creative activity.

That single change – getting a question included in any local authority- level surveys of young people – could have a marked impact on how we develop strategy/policy, fund and deliver music and creative learning work.

And then within our own consultations, we could start to explore and review definitions and preferences around music and cultural participation (Young People’s Cultural Journeys recently argued that we need to widen the definition of culture to engage young people).


Starting to think and talk in these terms; gathering data; agreeing a strategy based changes we want to see; working to make that happen. It’s what we already hope we’re all doing but maybe we need to shift focus a bit. I’d love to hear your views in the comments below.

* a meeting of the NHS Gloucestershire Clinical Commissioning Group and Gloucestershire County Council’s Children and Young People’s Health and Wellbeing Partnership group, but that’s a bit of a mouthful in an introduction!

** examples include:

*** for music-related examples see Music Education Works


  1. Nick Denham on 29th March 2023 at 4:45 pm

    A provoking comparison, thank you!
    Some public health services and universities have a behaviour change function, if you are looking for local support.

    Also, behind this, does your local area run a health and wellbeing survey with children and young people? There might be some useful data to support the need for cultural activities – in Hertfordshire, the 2022 survey had 11,000 respondents, and was commissioned by the the county council’s children’s services team –
    And 55% of respondents said that they coped with stress and worries by listening to music – the most frequent answer, before talking to friends or family!

  2. Anita on 29th March 2023 at 8:53 pm

    Invaluable useful insights and information as always Nick, thank you

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