Saturday, 15 March 2014

Off the Bench - Boosting sports participation in Wales

Being regularly harvested by dung beetles hasn't stopped Arjen Robben from combining football
with a successful diving career. So what barriers prevent uptake of sports in Wales?
(Pic :

Earlier this week, the National Assembly's Communities, Equality and Local Government Committee reported back on their inquiry into sports participation (pdf).

The goal was to see if the Welsh Government and Sport Wales were meeting their targets, and also to determine if there's accurate statistics-gathering, what barriers there are to sports participation, and if events like the Ryder Cup, 2012 Olympics and Paralympics left a legacy.

Other Assembly committees are undertaking inquiries into childhood obesity and weight loss services. So, I'll link the posts together into a mini series looking at obesity and its impact on policy. Naturally, this inquiry is related too.

It looks like the childhood obesity inquiry will report back soon, but I won't return to that until April as the next fortnight will be turned over to another important, but unrelated, health topic.

In summary, the Committee made 12 recommendations :
  • The Culture Minister should publish a joint delivery plan with Sport Wales and Public Health Wales, and undertake a review of statistics used to judge sports participation levels amongst under-represented groups (like ethnic minorities) and the deprived. The Welsh Government should also address low levels of ethnic minority sports teachers.
  • The Culture Minister should work with Sport Wales to see how sports fit into child poverty strategies, and address barriers preventing under-represented groups participating in sport, setting clear targets.
  • The Culture and Local Government ministers should work together to determine what impact local authority cuts are having on leisure services.
  • The Welsh Government should review its free swimming scheme and report back on why take-up is low in some areas, setting out an plan to increase swimming amongst those aged 11+.
Sports Participation : The Current Picture
Regular sports activity amongst youngsters has increased, as have club
memberships, but overall figures once you include the whole population remain static.
(Pic : BBC Wales via Press Association)
In the Welsh Government's own words, "sports participation has shown a worrying decline for all age groups, particularly in light of consequent health implications" – i.e obesity, heart disease, diabetes.

Public Health Wales (PHW) say sports participation levels, "have been static for a decade....and hasn't shifted for many years". Sports Wales say men are more likely to participate regularly in sport than women, as do higher-income households and younger adults in general.

The National Union of Teachers (NUT) said school sport participation declined 12% between 2009 and 2011, and the, "(Welsh) Government is not achieving the goals it set widen participation in sport....and physical activity".

PHW downplay the role of organised sport, saying "physical activity" encompasses a wide range of things including organised play, active travel (walking & cycling) and other active forms of recreation – presumably things like dance, shooting, martial arts, skateboarding, geocache and hiking.

To increase participation, Sport Wales say they work with sports "that make the biggest difference" in order to provide opportunities to "thousands rather than hundreds."

Sport Wales and Welsh Sports Association statistics showed the percentage of young people participating in sport at least three times a week rose from 27% in 2011 to 40% in 2013. The sports seeing the biggest increases were gymnastics (+25%), swimming (+39%), cycling (+24%), boxing (+33%), athletics (+12%) and disabled sports (+20%).

BBC Wales recently reported the latest figures showing sports club memberships have reached record levels, with 542,000 recorded members.

The Welsh Government currently provide £24million to Sport Wales to deliver on its sports and physical activity objectives.

Culture Minister, John Griffiths (Lab, Newport East), accepted the Welsh Government had not made the progress it hoped, saying it was a global problem and driving up sports participation was a "constant effort".

The Welsh Government have subsequently set up a Physical Activity Executive Group (another sodding committee) which crosses over with the health department. They also want to "mainstream physical activity", pointing to the Active Travel Act 2013 as an example of that in practice.

The Committee were pleased with recent progress, but concerned that the miserly £300,000 allocated to implement parts of the Active Travel Act was too little, and disappointed Business Minister Edwina Hart (Lab, Gower) wasn't willing to discuss the Act in detail despite it being her responsibility (I've covered the confusion over responsibilities before).

Number crunching

Sport Wales carry out extensive statistics-gathering surveys, but there
were concerns this didn't highlight which local areas and groups have specific problems.
(Pic :
Sport Wales run two annual surveys – one covering adults and the other schoolchildren.

The last school survey covered 110,000 children from 1,000 schools and is claimed to be "the largest survey of its kind in the world". The adult survey covers 22,000 households and is said to be the "most comprehensive source of information" on adult physical activity.

In addition, there's the annual Wales Health Survey alongside local government and sporting governing bodies data.

The Football Association of Wales (FAW) and Wales Football Trust (WFT) – more here - called for "robust statistics". They said Sports Wales data provided a good idea of trends, but not enough information at local level so they can plan their services better.

It was argued survey responses should be broken down into areas within local authorities to get a better picture of specific problems which might be putting people off sport, while the NUT argued all schoolchildren should be surveyed.

Next, there's a lack of data on race and sexual orientation, with Show Racism the Red Card critical of lack of research into discrimination in sport, questioning the relevance of some of the survey questions to ethnic minorities.

Sport Wales acknowledged imperfections with their surveying methods, because they're reliant on schools and local authorities actively wanting to participate. They went on to say they had specific problems with unnamed local authorities. That wouldn't include The Best Local Authority in Wales
by any chance?

The Culture Minister said it was worth "taking a very close look at the data that we generate" to determine if it's useful.

Barriers and Opportunities

Despite high-profile stars, there are still specific barriers facing women & girls,
ethnic minorities and the disabled - with girls most likely to drop out of sport aged 14-16.
(Pic : Welsh Rugby Union)
Sport Wales say there needs to be a "culture shift", but changing sedentary lifestyles would be a challenge, requiring "sophisticated marketing and innovative programmes" above and beyond what we currently see. Specific issues include people not being aware of what's available, lack of sporting skills or lack of equipment.

There was an emphasis on the role of schools, with pupils' experience of school sport "planting seeds for lifetime participation". Sport Wales appear to fall short of outright support for the proposal to make PE a core subject, but said PE should be "at the heart of the curriculum".

The NUT argued access to the facilities was essential, but currently under pressure due to funding cuts. They believed a wider range of activities should be offered to engage difficult groups – older girls in particular – but working pressure on teachers meant staff couldn't always focus on boosting participation.

In terms of specific groups :
  • Women and girls – 36% of girls take part regularly in sport compared to 44% of boys. Sport Wales say sport isn't meeting women's needs as they get older, with fewer sports to choose from and a focus on competitiveness and skill at the expense of socialising and enjoyment. The NUT say years 10 and 11 are when girls tend to drop out of sport, citing body image concerns and lack of options.
  • The disabled – There's been "considerable growth", but barriers remains like : access to facilities, lack of clubs, transport issues and media perceptions. Disability Sport Wales were concerned cutbacks in schools meant the same sporting opportunities couldn't be offered to disabled pupils as non-disabled. There's also a lack of co-ordination with mainstream sports clubs to make them more accessible and inclusive.
  • Deprived communities – Youths living in deprived areas are less likely to play sport than wealthier peers. Reasons include : costs, poor facilities and poor/lack of equipment. Sport Wales have a specific strategy to increase opportunities, including StreetGames.
  • LGBTs Diverse Cymru said there was an "urgent need" to tackle homophobia is sport in the same manner as racism, citing a lack of LGBT sporting role models, which meant professionals are too afraid to "come out", fearing fan reaction. LGBTs are just as interested in sport as heterosexuals, but sports clubs are often an "unfriendly environment".
  • Ethnic minorities – The issues here are wider than skin colour, including faith (Muslim women, for example) and childcare. Show Racism the Red Card Cymru said it's a complex - yet often over-simplified - issue that fails to acknowledge what communities want. Other problems include a lack of role models, lack of research into specific problems facing ethnic minorities, and lack of leadership – there's apparently only one PE teacher in Wales from an ethnic minority.
The role of local authorities
Despite seeing investment - like Ebbw Vale (above) - council-run leisure services
are under pressure due to cuts. There are also concerns about patchy uptake of the
Welsh Government's free swimming scheme amongst under-16s.
(Pic : South Wales Argus)
The WLGA said cuts have "had a major impact on use of leisure facilities", often leading to outsourcing (i.e Halo Leisure in Bridgend). They warn that while local authorities value leisure services, further cuts could lead to the loss of people on the ground. Sport Wales said there needed to be greater collaboration at regional and national level – possibly requiring ministerial oversight.

Availability of facilities was said to be "critical" to sports participation (duh!). PHW want a "major push on providing access sports, recreation and physical activity that are cheap, easy to get to, and run by enthusiastic champions".

As mentioned earlier, that could include schools. I've mentioned that in previous blogs, and the WLGA say there are examples where it works well (including the likes of Archbishop McGrath School in Bridgend). Though the NUT believe teachers shouldn't be expected to staff facilities out of hours.

The Welsh Government currently spends £3.5million to provide free swimming to under-16s during weekends and school holidays, and over-60s during term time. Take-up amongst over-60s has increased, but there's been a decline amongst under-16s, almost halving from 808,000 in 2004-05 to 421,000 in 2012-13.

The WLGA say variances between different local authorities on take-up was often due to the type of pool available. However, they argue numbers of people aged 11+ who can swim has "increased substantially", and changed significantly in comparison to England.

The Culture Minister said he was "very concerned" about local authority budget pressures, emphasising a "pressing need" for them to "find better ways of delivering services". He said opening school sports facilities to the public made "perfect sense", saying he would work with the Education Minister on that.

Extra Time

Despite the report's detailed findings, it glossed over an important area.
(Pic : BBC)
There's a huge, glaring omission from the report - and supposed to be one of the inquiry's terms of reference – the impact and legacy of the Ryder Cup, 2012 Olympics and Paralympics.

I suppose increases in participation in "Olympic sports" points towards a lasting legacy, but there's no conclusion and it's barely referred to – with zero mention of golf. So unfortunately I don't think we know for sure, unless it was mentioned in the committee evidence sessions themselves and didn't make the report. There's no way in hell I'm going to go looking for it.

There's also (AFAIK) no mention of sports which could have seen a decline in participation - if you look at trends in England that might include football and tennis.

Having said that, the rest of the report is a mixed bag. Sport Wales appear to have a grip on things and some of their initiatives are clearly working and making an impact.

One trend I've noticed are gyms appearing in big warehouses on industrial estates, often focusing on things like crossfit. There's also been an expansion of the private gym industry. I wouldn't mind seeing some research into what impact private sports clubs have had on use of local authority facilities.

Clearly though there's ongoing issues in schools, and issues amongst hard to reach groups like girls and minorities. I've mentioned it before, but I support things like community-owned sports/athletic clubs that play several sports under a single banner. Through sharing facilities, coaching staff etc. it might create scale and enable sports to be offered that otherwise wouldn't be.

Perhaps local sports leagues should be set up and tiered based on ability. So if someone wants to play for fun they can, while at the same time the more competitive can compete in organised national competitions for championships. As someone's confidence increases they can move up a tier, as they get older they can drop down. It might be worth coming back to that another time.


Post a Comment