A new vision for sport?
The new Sport England strategy promises a new approach to the pursuit of a world-leading community sport structure. Jonathan Ives found out what it means for the government’s sports agency and for those involved in the sport sector
Planning for sport: grow...
Sport England’s strategy for the period 2008–2011 was published at the same time as the legacy statement for London 2012. It was no great surprise to find that Sport England’s plans did not shift the promise of free swimming from the headlines but, although this strategy was another in a long line of ministerially inspired reassessments of Sport England’s role, there was recognition across the sport and leisure sector that this review could have far-reaching implications for the sports delivery system and the vast range of individuals, organisations and authorities working within it. The sports minister’s declaration a few months before that the government’s sports agency should be focused on sport and only sport – the ‘sport for sport’s sake’ concept – meant that the publication of Sport England’s strategy had been preceded by a great deal of speculation regarding the role of national governing bodies (NGB), the likely status of county sports partnerships (CSP) and, of course, the future of Sport England itself.
When the strategy was officially launched a lot of these questions were answered and a few were left hanging. Sport England, the document revealed, will be focusing on “maximising English sport in all its forms”. Far from being a drive for elitism, the new strategy will seek to expand the pool of talent, “improving the quality of what we do” at every level. There will be a new partnership between the government, its agencies and the NGBs, with local authorities recognised as a key partner in the delivery of “a world-leading community sport infrastructure”. With an aim to create a vibrant sporting culture across the country, Sport England will be making a clear distinction between sport and the physical activity agenda pursued by other government departments. Sport England, the strategy explains, will operate in the space between the Youth Sport Trust (now recognised as responsible for school sport) and UK Sport (in charge of elite sport) to reduce the drop-off of involvement in sport among post-sixteen-year-olds and expand the available talent pool. As “recognised experts in their sport”, NGBs are to be commissioned against key outcomes. Coaching, volunteering and sports clubs are all acknowledged as part of Sport England’s continuing remit, along with diversity, reduced bureaucracy (to “release more funding into frontline delivery”) and clear targets. Among these targets are: an additional one million people doing more sport by 2012/13; reduction in drop-off in at least five sports by 25% by 2012/13; a measurable increase in satisfaction (although the measurement methodology is yet to be determined); improved talent-development systems in at least 25 sports; and “a major contribution” to the delivery of the five-hour school sport offer.
Talking to The Leisure Review, Sport England’s director of policy and performance, Mihir Warty, explained that the review process had been driven by the 2012 legacy and the need to focus on three challenges: not enough people do sport, too many people drop out and making sure that investment produces results. The result, after what he described as a lengthy and detailed consultation process, was a strategy with three strands: Grow, Sustain and Excel. Under these themes Sport England will be working closely with governing bodies and other partners to deliver demonstrable outcomes in the quest for a sports structure that will be the envy of the world. Having launched the strategy, there will now be six months of commissioning in which Sport England will be working with governing bodies to see where individual NGBs wish to focus their efforts.
“The main thing is, historically, government and Sport England focused very much on output measures,” Warty said. “We are now focusing on working with the governing bodies and other partners to say, ‘You take responsibility, along with the funding, to deliver outcomes, making sure there is a great talent system in your sport, making sure that people are not dropping out of your sport, making sure where you want funding more and more people are taking part in your sport.’ The governing bodies crack on with that and, along with other partners, we will fund that and we will build infrastructure around that. For example, [given] the massive amount that local government puts into sport, which dwarfs our own investment, we’ll work tripartite with national governing bodies and local government to make sure that it is maximised. That’s where we add value but in terms of delivery that is going to be driven by the delivery partners, particularly the national governing bodies.”
Sport England’s new approach will mean that the organisation’s focus will now be sport and working as a strategic funding body; rather than providing coaches, for example, Sport England will now be facilitating the work of those organisations specialising in that field. Warty accepts that Sport England’s role in funding facilities will also change.
“There’s two things you always know about funding,” he said. “There’s never enough and it’s always a finite amount. We are going to have to be careful about facilities investment because a lot of our facilities investment is going to be going into Olympic facilities, which will be great legacy facilities. In terms of major capital investment, we will have less scope but that doesn’t mean they are ruled out.”
Much of the pre-strategy speculation revolved around the future of the local sport structures – particularly the CSPs and community sports networks (CSNs) – that had been created by Sport England as part of its now modified drive for increased participation as part of the physical activity agenda. With so many resources invested in their creation, would CSPs and CSNs still feature as part of the new direction? CSPs at least feature in the strategy document; CSNs do not. Warty explained that future engagement will be dependent upon the extent to which any organisation is able to deliver against Sport England’s stated strategic aims.
“Where we have commitments to funding and projects they will be honoured,” he said. “Where we have relationships, particularly with country sports partnerships and community sports networks, which Sport England has very much been at the driving heart of, we are looking to work with them to focus on the element of work that we are funding and ensure that the money that goes into them from Sport England supports this overall delivery.”
National governing bodies of sport will be asked to what sort of support they need at a sub-regional level, Warty explained, and this support could be delivered through the CSP network. While sports with a strong sub-regional structure, such as football, might not require such help, other smaller NGBs may well appreciate the help that can be offered via their relationships with CSPs. Community sports networks, however, will only be supported where they meet stated objectives and Sport England does not envisage any further roll-out of CSNs.
The placing of sport firmly at the stated centre of Sport England’s work has, as one might imagine, been widely welcomed by many within sports delivery. Lloyd Conaway, himself a former Sport England insider and now director of the Bedfordshire and Luton CSP, offered a warm welcome for news of a continuing role for CSPs in the Sport England strategy.
“The CSPs are maturing, making many connections locally and doing some excellent delivery,” he said. “They are vital, particularly in working with the small- and medium-sized governing bodies. This is where there is real potential for partnership working on club development and volunteering.” He was also resigned to Sport England’s cooling on the future of CSNs: “I understand this as the roll-out of networks around the country has been so mixed. It is a shame that the really good ones are in effect being punished because in some places CSNs don’t exist or haven’t worked.”
Simon Kirkland, managing director of West Midlands sports and coaching consultancy Sport Structures, also welcomed Sport England’s refocusing but also added a caveat. “The new Sport England strategy at last puts sport at the heart of its development and at Sport Structures we see clubs, coaches and volunteer development as fundamental to the growth in sport,” he said. “As an ex-CEO of a governing body, I am pleased that Sport England are willing to support the growth of NGBs as the expert bodies for the development of sport, although my concern is the capacity of NGBs to deliver.”
Given some of the high-profile failings among governing bodies in the recent sporting past, others will share these concerns. However, Mihir Warty is confident that the governing bodies will prove themselves up to the job of shouldering the organisational burden of delivering high expectations. That said, he also recognises that some NGB still have some way to go.
“We don’t have a Plan B,” he said, “so we have to assume that they are and work on that assumption. In any sector there is going to be varying quality, varying abilities to deliver, and I think that national governing bodies would recognise that themselves. We have two major approaches here. The first is to say that where there are NGBs who are effective deliverers we will support them, effectively a system of earned autonomy [and] where there are NGBs that are in either developmental evolution mode or are not delivering as well as they might want to, we would offer a form of intensive care and work with them.”
While some may question the extent to which governing bodies are likely to be able to deliver a world-leading community sport structure, others have questioned the role that governing bodies have already played in shaping Sport England’s strategy. John Eady, managing director of sports consultancy Knight, Kavanagh and Page, is among them.
“As is widely known, the development of Sport England’s new strategy has been strongly influenced by some of the major national governing bodies of sport,” Eady told The Leisure Review. “While this is broadly justified and the swing of the policy pendulum is in the right direction, many, including myself, are concerned that this swing may be too fast, too sharp and may damage certain existing structures, such as county sports partnerships that have over the last couple of years started to become effective. In addition, implicit and explicit statements about the relative effectiveness of work presently being undertaken in and around school sport – in coaching and in the context of elite player development – have also been over-played.
“The current sports delivery system in England, in all areas, is still a country mile short of producing physically literate young people; smooth, visible and effective pathways from school-based sport to community and club sport; and the people – and facilities – to support this process. In this context the need for major improvement certainly applies to Sport England but it is also highly germane to all the other key agencies responsible for driving the development of sport in England.”
Warty defended the composition and the influence of the external challenge board that helped shape the Sport England strategy as a group driven by a commitment to community sport. While the board included representatives of the Rugby Football League, the Youth Sport Trust and Bath University, Warty argued that their overwhelming priority was the change required to delivery a world-leading community sport system.
“At [the strategy] launch the secretary of state was very clear about that with the governing bodies: you are seen as experts in your sport, you will get more empowerment [and] earned autonomy to crack on with delivery as long as public money is being guided towards these outcomes, which are about community sport. Whether it’s being delivered by a national governing body or a regional system, the most important thing, which is at the heart of the strategy, is that the money and the effort and the enthusiasm gets through to the person on the ground.”
Getting funding to the right people is a perennial problem within sport and within government. Having followed the development of Sport England policy closely in recent years, Duncan Wood-Allum, director of consulting: sport, leisure and culture at Capita Symonds, recognises the breadth of challenges across the sporting structures.
“It’s clear that for Government the regionalisation of Sport England has not delivered a consistency of purpose or effective use of resources,” he said. “To that end, a centralised approach would be a natural response, given the reduction in available resources leading up to 2012. ‘Spend what limited capital you have well’ appears to be the new mantra and it seems that the days of wildly over-optimistic expectations of the impact this quango can have are over.
“A huge question mark lies with how the national governing bodies will support mixed sport facility developments, although due to the limited funds available this will be less of an issue than it first appears as Sport England will play a key role in coordinating bids for new projects. The need for Sport England to re-establish itself as a credible strategic lead for sport investment is vital. Sport England actively supporting local government in improving its approach to strategic planning of assets and facility development has never been more critical than at present.”
Along with great opportunities, the promise of London 2012 has brought great pressures and the new Sport England strategy is the latest – and last – opportunity for the government’s own sports agency to make a tangible and successful contribution. A world-leading community sport system is the prize and the ticking of the clock counting down to 2012 keeps getting louder.
Find the complete Sport England strategy at the Sport England website.
The Leisure Review, July 2008
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Warty recognises that some NGB still have some way to go. “We don’t have a Plan B,” he said, “so we have to assume that they are and work on that assumption.”
Mihir Warty, Sport England
Simon Kirkland welcomed Sport England’s refocusing but also added a caveat. “The new Sport England strategy at last puts sport at the heart of its development... my concern is the capacity of NGBs to deliver.”