Sunak pledges to ‘build on legacy’ of Lionesses after schools commitment

It is the government’s job to build on the Lionesses’ legacy, the prime minister has said, hours after heeding the calls of the Women’s Euro 2022 champions and committing to providing girls with equal access to school sports.

Downing Street’s announcement of the measures came after a campaign launched by the team on the heels of their tournament win last summer, when players wrote an open letter calling on the then prime ministerial contenders, Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak, to invest in girls’ football in schools.

“That was something that the Lionesses campaigned rightly for. It’s something that I said over the summer I would deliver if I was prime minister, and I’m glad that today we are delivering on that promise,” Sunak said during a football session with young players and members of the national team at Downing Street on Wednesday.

Football Association figures published last July showed 72% of girls played as much football as boys in primary school but that the figure dropped to 44% in secondary school. It found that only 40% of secondary schools offered girls the same access to football via after-school clubs as boys.

Beth Mead, the BBC Sports Personality of the Year 2022 winner and star of the Lionesses’ triumph, said on Wednesday: “We’re passionate about a lasting legacy and the next generation of football, for girls especially.

“It’s exciting times ahead, and hopefully there’s girls who can take over from us and do even better.”

The new standards will make the same sports available to boys and girls, where wanted, and a minimum of two hours of PE a week up to the end of year 11. Over the next two years, more than £600m will be provided by the government to improve PE and sports in primary schools, in addition to up to another £57m to open more school sports facilities outside school hours.

For years the FA has taken strides to improve talent pathways to the national team and, more recently, to improve diversity. In the months after the team’s success, the Women’s Super League attendance was up 227% on the previous season, and England Football saw a 15% increase in female youth team participation from June to December. “Our job is to build on that legacy,” said Sunak.

The government’s commitment on International Women’s Day also coincided with an event for the FA’s #LetGirlsPlay campaign, which was launched in 2021 and is fighting for equal access to football in communities and schools by 2024.

The director of women’s football at the FA, Sue Campbell, has seen political support for the issue vary in the past, but she said the present government’s heeding a call for change from the women’s national team was a “massive statement” about its commitment.

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Lady Campbell attended a #LetGirlsPlay football session on Wednesday morning with primary- and secondary-aged school girls, alongside the national team coach, Sarina Wiegman, and the former men’s team striker Ian Wright. In total, 200,000 girls took part in football sessions on Wednesday as part of the campaign.

“I still think we have hearts and minds to win about women’s football. I don’t think everyone thinks it’s a wonderful thing,” Campbell said.

“We’ve still got that job to do, that as the game evolves, and people see the quality of football and are inspired by it, we hope people will begin to accept it as the norm that women can and should play football at every level.”

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