Delivering sport: the TLR round table

The Leisure Review invited three seasoned professionals involved in the delivery of sport and based in the North West to discuss the state of the nation from their particular perspectives. Powered only by tea and the occasional question, the conversation provided a fascinating insight into the challenges, successes and hopes that are shaping the future of sport in the UK

The Leisure Review round table
The Leisure Review table presence: Kirstie Simpson, Nick Rider and Alistair Robertson

Round the table:

Kirstie Simpson
Deputy head of department, Sport and Exercise Science, University of Chester. Kirstie manages a team of academics delivering programmes at the university’s Warrington campus teaching and delivering programmes, foundation degrees and an undergraduate degree in sports development

Nick Rider
Chief executive, England Squash. England Squash is the governing body for squash and racketball. Nick’s job is to lead the development of the sport and the delivery of the strategy for the sport across the country. Visibility and profile is a key strand.

Alistair Robertson
Head of sport and recreation at Sefton Council. His section is part of a wider leisure services department with responsibilities to manage the operation, procurement and development of sport and recreation services for a district of some 300,000 people through a mixed economy model of partnerships, enabling and commissioning.


The debate:

You are all involved in – for want of a better phrase – the delivery system for sport in the North West. How do you view the apparent emphasis on ‘sport for sport’s sake’ following developments at Sport England?

Kirstie “As an academic in an emerging field of sports development I think it is particularly challenging for young people who enter an academic programme called ‘sports development’ and come out of it at the end not really sure what they are going to do as a career. Developing a ‘sport for sport’ model makes it even more difficult to make that choice. Effectively what you are then talking about is coaches or sport-specific development officers and you are not talking about the young people that we deliver through our programme who understand the broad concepts of developing sport in a community. I’m not saying those two things are mutually exclusive but I am saying it’s very difficult for academe to respond quickly to that type of decision. It means that our graduates are constantly behind the times, even though it is a graduate profession.”

Having previously been somewhat sidelined governing bodies are now right in the middle of the delivery system…

Nick “Absolutely. I think the best thing that has happened is a recognition that governing bodies are where they should be, which is right in the middle of the photograph again. This is the stock in trade of governing bodies: to recognise a tighter definition of sport and that sports development should be at the core of it. Seeing that this is what governing bodies do, the recent developments couldn’t be better news. The key challenge now is that everybody keeps the faith. That’s not a given but the signs so far are reasonably encouraging.”

Sefton has been very positive in delivering on the other aspects of sport, the more socially focused areas. How do you view this twist?

Alistair: “The fact that the message and the methodology is going to change only concerns me slightly. One minute you’re in this world of making a difference in a social context and the next you’re back to sport where it used to be, working with governing bodies and partnering in that sense. Like many other local authority sport and recreation services we are now a ‘commissioned’ service for health, for social change, for educational improvement, for the development and building of community capacity. As a commissioned organisation, a lot of resources have followed which in most cases are actually mainstreamed by partners. If there is a determination to move towards a more sports-orientated theme I doubt that we will move towards it  in any holistic way. We are too established in other directions. We will continue to be adaptive – change is our middle name – so we’re not worried by the prospect of a new direction but we’re not going to follow it just because it’s there. We are almost at the point of saying, ‘You want to invest in us but we’ll need to see what you bring to the table,’ because there’s a limit to how much we can do.”

How seriously do you take the national targets for increased participation?

Alistair: We want to increase participation ,that’s what we are about. We’ve got our own Active People survey results and in terms of Merseyside we were performing better than the other boroughs but it’s not really surprising because of the investment we’ve made in new facilities  in recent years. We do measure everything we do because many of the funding agencies are looking for outcomes that they can measure: for example participation and  behavioural change are important for others, certainly on the health scene, and adherence to continued participation. I suspect that Sport England are more concerned about participation rates than we are though.

Nick: “When Derek Mapp went, the 1% kind of went with him as the sort of big stick that everybody was being beaten with. I suspect every governing body is breathing a sigh of relief because it was a very blunt instrument for a very complex landscape. Clearly the whole thing about people involved in sport is predicated on the idea that we should be encouraging sustained and increased participation in sport and healthy activity so we would take that as a given in a sense. However, in our new strategy we’ve been able to drop the need to say in the North West or Yorkshire we will need to increase participation in squash by 67,000 people or whatever the figure is. Active People is a fantastic body of work but there was a real danger that we were going to be absolutely paralysed by it. I think that’s gone.”

Alistair  “The question for me is: whose target is it? Local authorities don’t have to subscribe to it. We don’t own it. It’s Sport England’s target. My view is ‘You’re challenging us with meeting a 1% [target] and we’ll do our best’ but we can not be too concerned if we do or don’t meet it. It may be arrogance or conceit but we know we’re making a difference to the opportunities for participation that are provided, even without systematic measurement, we know there is growth. Like Nick I am not sure that it is a  simple as it seems. What’s far more fundamental is how well prepared is the sector to ensure that there is a relationship with governing bodies of sport or with community opportunities? Because they aren’t working together. I don’t think the academic sector at school level is adequately joined up with governing bodies or Sport England to help the system to have the best chance.”
Kirstie “I think it’s magnified at further and higher level. What you have then is two bodies even further removed from the central continuum from school into club into adult club. From my perspective, those young people at school who will become more involved through the competition managers that the Youth Sport Trust are currently developing will be the young people who would have been competitive anyway because they’ve got all the other factors that would have encouraged them to be competitive: supportive parents, access to a vehicle, those sorts of things. In my view those structures will not attract the young people we need to attract into physical activity. If we don’t attract those new people into some form of physical activity we’ll never achieve that 1% target because there aren’t enough young people around. We have to do things differently. While I understand the welcoming of the ‘sport for sport’s sake’ approach, I think it’s got to be ‘sport for sport with a difference’ because otherwise we’ll never hit any kind of increase in participation. We’ll always do what we’ve always done and we’ll get what we’ve always got.”

Alistair  “It goes back to the question: what is the role of a governing body? If a sporting governing body wants to achieve for its members or affiliate clubs and organisations, then they must make it happen with the voluntary sector. In the main I think local government is about providing through education, the platform, the experiences and the exposure to a whole number of opportunities. In local authority leisure it’s providing the next stage, the environment, the big facilities that you can’t really expect the club sector to provide plus  developing relationships with the school sector so there is a progression. But very few medal winners will come from school services or local authority services. They will in the main have been nurtured in some sort of club structure and that’s where governing bodies will get results.”

Given that squash is entirely dependent on facilities, what do you think? Does a focus on pure sport threaten to remove you from that relationship with local authorities?

Nick “I think there’s an awful lot in here [the new Sport England strategy] that’s still says ‘sport for sport’s sake’ can still mean ‘running about a bit’. It doesn’t have to be ‘running about a bit and you’ve got to get better in six months or we’re going to ditch you’. I do sometimes remind people here at England Squash that it is just hitting a ball against a wall and it’s a lot of fun. There are plenty of audiences and potential participants – racquetball being one for us – among people who say, ‘I do want to run about but I’d like a bouncier ball and a bigger bat so it’s relatively easy.’ So that’s part of our contribution to increased participation.”

How do new sport development professionals see themselves: as part of sport-specific areas or part of this social service?

Kirstie “There’s a wide variety. A number of our students would aspire to be PE teachers.  A number of them aspire to work in something that is called ‘sports development’ but they’re not really sure what that means. Some think that means they will become a coach. Some aspire to be a professional coach and don’t realise how difficult that might be and a lot of them don’t really know because they don’t really know what sports development is. About 25% of our students secure jobs in sports development at various levels, not including those who teach PE.”

How does the suggestion that we will be focusing on pure sport affect that?

Alistair “Ultimately we are working with same people in the community that we were twenty years ago. We might be working with greater resources than we used to which is why Sefton has forty plus development staff, all of whom are engaged in some way in using sport to meet outcomes. That’s forty more than in 1988. How have we got to that point? By being opportunistic, by being flexible and by being able to see where somebody else’s investment can meet our objectives and their objectives. So if Sport England decide that they want to reshape their sports development strategy it won’t change how we work, but we will adapt to ensure our community benefits. It might give governing bodies more status and help them get back into the picture. I’ve watched the delivery system and asked where have governing bodies disappeared to? The DCMS may need a different agenda and Sport England have no choice but to try and sell that but I think  Governing bodies have the opportunity to ride on the back of this and raise their own profile and importance.”

How does central policy affect you? Do you care what the DCMS wants to do with sport?

Nick “It’s a curious beast. Clearly for us to simply ignore it is not an option but our strategy says that we are only trying to do three things: one is about participation, membership and accessibility; one is about performance; and the other is about financial independence. While we get significant financial investment from Sport England – and we sincerely hope we get more – it becomes a greater and greater risk. Our dependency becomes greater and we can’t afford to do that.”

2012 is supposed to be a beacon for legacy. Stewart Kellett [Sport England’s regional director] is a big advocate for using the Olympics for the North West. Do you see it’s going to happen?

Alistair  “The Commonwealth Games were a tremendous success for Manchester. But, apart from volunteering, the benefit was only really felt within Greater Manchester. I sat on legacy groups in the run up and withdrew because it was clear that there was going to be a limited impact on Merseyside. Research is being focused around the world short course swimming championships in Manchester to see whether a sports event like that can leave a legacy. Sport England is doing that because there is a fear that the concept of a legacy may just be rhetoric. I wouldn’t be able to judge whether 2012 will have the impact expected.”

Kirstie “From our students’ point of view the Olympics is just another event and we encourage our students to be critical of all aspects. We say to our students, this is the structure, this is how these organisations hope to work together, these are some of the outputs, major events being one of them: does it work, how does it work, can we be critical of it? From our academic perspective it will just be another event; it will happen and then we’ll be critical of it in terms of what happened leading up to it, at the event and then whether there was a legacy or not. There was some evidence in terms of the Commonwealth Games in terms of the economic development, the regeneration and the volunteering but there wasn’t an awful lot  in terms of legacy. You would have to question the amount of input – ie resource that went into the process – the output and the outcome: did people change as a result of being involved in that event? You have to measure otherwise you have to assume. Alistair, you said earlier that you know you’re making a difference but there are some measures which, put together, tell a story so that you know you’re making a difference. If we don’t measure that in whatever shape or form, we will never know that we’ve made a difference. We might know that more people are participating but we won’t know what changes have occurred as a result of the participation.”

But you can’t measure buzz and the government has at some point been persuaded to spend £10 billion delivering an Olympics which is nothing but buzz. At The Leisure Review we think the Olympics in London is a good thing; but it’s still all about buzz.

Alistair “One of the most impressive sports development figures that came out of the Sydney Olympics was that four years after the Games had been held a large proportion of their next Olympic squad emerged  from where the Australian teams and the major international countries had had their holding camps. There is a relationship and the civic connection: they come to train, take over your sports halls and facilities, they integrate. The inspiration that that sort of contact delivers was a real boost to a lot of the Australian athletes. We know that you can’t deliver an Olympic athlete in four years but if people were on the threshold that might just have been the incentive they needed.”

What does it mean from the perspective of a non-Olympic sport?

Nick “I’m very concerned about it. Handball will get more recognition in 2012 than squash. The only thing that will make a difference is if next year at the Copenhagen IOC Congress squash gets voted into the 2016 Games. Then we’re an Olympic sport but right now there doesn’t seem to be much support for legacy for us. None of us should think about TV money in 2011, 12 or 13. The British handball team will be of media interest because it’s an interesting story. That is a real concern for us.”

Going back to our original starting point, is delivering through county sports partnerships an effective model?

Alistair  “From my own perspective, you used to be able to phone up Sport England and say, ‘we’re thinking of doing this, could you give me some guidance on the most up-to-date approach?’ They would do facility planning model work, they would do strategic planning, they would give you guidance on leisure strategy and provide the interface between the sports governing bodies and related agencies. I understood what Sport England was about. They sought to plug the gap with localised control and intervention, so introduced the 49 county sports partnerships that are now the filtering point for Sport England and the first point of contact for local authorities. I have yet to be convinced that the CSPs add value and therefore I am not sure that the delivery system is working.”

Kirstie “As a university we are represented on Cheshire and Warrington CSP but we’re not involved in the same way a local authority is involved. Certainly from a research perspective we could be. We are the only university in Cheshire so potentially there’s a massive gap that remains to be filled but there seems to be a very tight grip on what a CSP should do. Whether it’s because they’re not sure why they might research or a lack of understanding I’m not sure but there’s certainly a lack of willingness to spend money on that area. They don’t seem to want to be strategic in the way that Alistair is suggesting and I don’t know whether they are directed not to be. In effect they shouldn’t have sports development officers. If they are a strategic body, that’s what they should be; they shouldn’t be a delivery agency.”

Nick “There’s been a massive variation in standard and in model. When they have been strategic, small, sign-posting, assisting, supporting, we’ve actually found them very useful but in the main it has taken a long time for them to become fit for purpose. At its worst we have the situation where the partnership is asking us for more information and more conditions in our £6,000 grant application than there was in our application for  our £1.5m whole sport plan grant. And they couldn’t see that this was disproportionate. We just turned it down because we haven’t the time or the mental strength to go through it.”

Sports development as a profession has exploded – there are the county sports partnerships, the Youth Sport Trust structures and a lot more money in the system than there used to be – but is the profession fit for purpose?

Alistair  “It’s a great debate. It’s a generalisation but the kind of person we’re looking to recruit isn’t a sports development officer per se. We’re lucky now at Sefton because the benchmark is high for people to join us because we have a decent reputation and we have a lot of interest in our vacancies. In terms of the skill set it’s the entrepreneurs and the innovators who can work a little beyond convention that we want. So the profession needs to adapt to meet these needs.”

Kirstie “And that’s a really difficult thing for higher education to achieve because there’s no set curriculum for any programme. You’ve got the old debate about whether universities are a place for knowledge and education or whether they are a place for training and developing people for work. The Leach Report has moved universities to engage in the skills debate but there is no compulsion. Sports development falls between those two stools because from an academic perspective we want students to be critical and in order to develop that critical thinking we have to develop their academic skills; this means they have to read, to understand how things work and why things work they way they do in order to be critical of them. On the flip side of that, how do you apply that in the workplace? You’ve got the national occupational standards for sports development but how do you embed those skills and competencies into what is effectively a theoretical programme? You’ve got to encourage students to apply the knowledge and the skills. We do that through a work placement but also through methods of assessments. There are a number of sports science courses that have sports development modules but because sports development is sexy and it sells it’s called ‘sports development’ not ‘sport and exercise science’. So it’s difficult for higher education to produce the type of person that you want because they are caught between the need for academic rigour and the need of a graduate industry for skills and competencies. That’s a real big challenge for the institutions that are prepared to take it on.”

Alistair “I’ve seen some of your graduates and they are a credit to the course but having the tools at this time unfortunately isn’t enough. Nick, you’re not looking for someone to carry a bag of racquets and some balls. You’re looking for an enabler and a persuader to do business development, income investment, marketing, promotions.”

Nick “We don’t have development officers anymore. They need to do some of that and they need to understand it but when we go to sell England Squash to people or to retain our current customers we now have to have a portfolio which includes sports development and coaching, includes marketing and business analysis, includes financial services. For our market we need to be able to sell all or part of that to everybody. The people we are recruiting now have all sorts of backgrounds but they have the nous and something about them to be a persuader and sell the range.”

Kirstie “Maybe what we’re talking about is not developing the sports development industry to become a graduate profession in the pure sense, ie BA, BSc Hons, but to look at foundation degrees as a part-time course, a GNVQ by another name, because it’s about skills and competencies as much as it is academic knowledge.”

Alistair “I think things are changing. I’ve noticed a change in the calibre of graduates in the last four or five years. They can now write more coherently and they’ve got a little more familiarity with some of the issues so obviously the syllabuses and the processes have changed to reflect what’s needed in the work place. Perhaps a local authority could adopt a college? Chartered status would do this for our industry because you would make an affiliation with an academic provider compulsory, a bit like feeder clubs do in sports.”

Kirstie  “There are examples where that works. We’ve got foundation degrees and other degrees linked directly to the NHS. Nurses come in, get qualified and go out directly into the NHS.”

Alistair “So why have we been so slow? Sports development was launched fifty-plus years ago. The PCT asked us to put a proposal together so that we deliver a weight-management programme. One of our senior development officers has put this bid together and she’s been in before a PCT board bidding for £286,000, a one-off grant but if we make a success of it they will mainstream the service. What sort of level of skills does that individual need at 26 years of age to go into that board and pitch that scheme?

And in that spirit and to bring us to a close, Nick, are you positive about your situation?

Nick “Absolutely. I think we are on the verge of something very exciting. There are some real and significant risks in there but we know what they are and we are far more confident than we were five years ago about how to deal with them. We are better resourced, we have a far better strategic dimension and we have more knowledge. I am actually very positive about the future, even though we know there are some elephant traps out there; we now know how to find them and avoid them. I’m looking forward to it.”


Kirstie “I’m positive about the potential employees in the sector that I am developing now and I feel sure that by developing critical, reflective practitioners they will, once they have experience in whichever facet of the industry they choose to go into, will provide the industry with the employees that they need, whichever direction it goes.”


Alistair “We are hitting a percentage of the population way beyond what we have ever done and we are actually creating better life chances for our community. So I’m very positive about where we are as a service and our impact as a commissioned service being of value. We have the skills and we are much more trusted by our community than some of the other council services. That’s not unique to us – you’ll find good practice across the country – but if sport has changed to ‘for sport’s sake’ in my view it provides a real opportunity. It raises the profile of governing bodies, it raises the value of achieving medals and getting into competition and that’s been missing. Another layer might come in but let the voluntary sector and the governing bodies get the kind of boost they need because we are behind them all the way”


With thanks to our hosts at the National Squash Centre, Manchester.

If you would like to contribute to this debate or comment on any of the issues raised, please e-mail the editor.




© Copyright of all material on this site is retained by The Leisure Review or the individual contributors where stated. Contact The Leisure Review for details.

"The best thing that has happened is a recognition that governing bodies are where they should be."


"We are now a commissioned service for health, for social change..."

TLR managing editor Mick Owen asks the question: to what extent does central policy affect your work?

an independent view for the leisure industry








about us

contact us