The changing landscape of active leisure

With SkillsActive launching a new aquatics registration system and numerous other representative organisations pondering their structures and their futures, the sport, leisure and sector seems to be at another crossroads in its professional development. Jonathan Ives spent some time looking at the signposts in an attempt to divine the direction of travel.

The Register of Aquatic Professionals (RAPs) was officially launched in November at an unostentatious but well-attended reception in the Strangers’ dining room at the Palace of Westminster. Leavened by a sprinkling of Olympians and MPs, the audience heard some introductory remarks from the leading figures of the organisations involved with the register’s development and delivery before relaxing into the post-formalities small talk and gossip. Representatives of SkillsActive were on hand in numbers to work the room and ensure that the details of RAPs, now entering a post-launch pilot phase, were spread to all available ears. Those representing other bodies were more at liberty to express the pleasant surprise that the notoriously fractious world of aquatics had managed to come this far, while gossip-mongers speculated, as gossip-mongers will, on which organisations had most to gain and which individuals had done well out of the process.

For any dispassionate observer familiar with the history of the organisations and the processes involved it was an event that offered a glimpse of a new approach to professional representation within the leisure sector, a long-awaited and much-heralded landscape in which organisations would be willing and able to co-operate to promote and elevate the standards within and profile without the sport, leisure and culture sector. But only a glimpse; too many promises have been made and broken, too many opportunities recognised and lost, too much money spent and wasted for anyone to get excited just yet about the dawn of a coherent and co-ordinated new age for leisure.

In the run-up to the launch of RAPs Ian Taylor, recently in post as chief executive at SkillsActive, had been happy to discuss this new professional landscape, along with the potential of the new register, with The Leisure Review. He explained that one of the most intriguing aspects of his work was steering the work of SkillsActive on behalf of the “active leisure sector” within the context of a new funding structure for the sector skills councils, of which SkillsActive is one.

“Previously the sector skills councils were provided with a budget to spend in accordance with what they saw as necessary to their sector,” Taylor said. “The new funding system requires each sector skills council to apply for funding for these projects from a variety of funding sources. In effect we are bidding for funds from a number of central pots and we have to convince these fund-holders of the quality of our proposals.”

He conceded that this new approach has introduced an element of uncertainty to funding, particularly when an organisation has been used to working with a clearly defined annual budget; whether that budget was expanding or contracting, one knew how much one had to play with and could adapt accordingly. However, Taylor was adamant that adapting to this new system had brought advantages over the previous, perhaps more reactive, funding scenario.

“This new funding structure requires a sector skills council very closely with those working within the sector,” he said, “perhaps much more closely than they had before. We now have to engage the representatives of the various and numerous parts of the active leisure sector at every stage of the development of any project that will require funding. We have to work with employers from the outset, putting them in a position to develop, support and steer these projects through the funding process and on to delivery.”

As a result SkillsActive has had to refocus and recalibrate as an organisation to work closely with employers and other organisations across the leisure sector. It has had, Taylor insisted, a profound effect on the organisation and the way it works with these partners. RAPs, he suggested, is an excellent example of how the concerted efforts of employers, representative organisations and a supportive sector skills council can work together effectively, bringing clarity to the requirements of the wider sector and focusing on the benefits of the outcomes to overcome obstacles and barriers that may previously have been insurmountable.

In an article offering an introduction to RAPs prior to the Westminster launch, The Leisure Review had been measured in its welcome, describing the new register as “neither innovative nor massively important beyond the confines of the aquatics world”, although an editorial spoke rather more hopefully, suggesting that the register “is likely to have a significant impact upon the teaching of swimming” that offers “a model that could be applied more widely across the sport, leisure and culture sector to create and sustain momentum for professional management standards”.

The reassessment and refocusing being undertaken by SkillsActive is echoed among numerous other organisations that seek to represent, support and improve various parts of the sport, leisure and culture sector. Sport England, for example, has been continuously reassessing its role in light of ministerial challenges for the last two decades and even UK Sport, widely acknowledged as one of the organisations within the sports sector that is meeting lofty expectations, has been asked to prepare for restructuring, even if the most recent proposals of a merger with Sport England appear to have been shelved.

A couple of stops down the Piccadilly line from SkillsActive’s London headquarters the Sport and Recreation Alliance is also contemplating some interesting times. As a membership organisation, the SRA is acutely aware that its primary function is to represent the interests of the national governing bodies of sport (NGB) that comprise its membership but it is also conscious of the need to support the development of management skills and structures across the wider sport, leisure and culture sector. Membership subscriptions from numerous but hardly wealthy NGB do not lend themselves to the creation a sustainable financial model for an effective and ambitious organisation, and while the SRA is contracted by a number of other agencies, among them SkillsActive and Sport England, to deliver services on their behalf, these agencies’ own financial recalibrations are likely to have a sequential impact on the SRA’s own budgets.

Meanwhile, in Loughborough’s version of a sport city the long-awaited and apparently ill-fated saviour of the leisure management sector, the Institute for the Management of Sport and Physical Activity, has budgetary issues of its own. Its recently acquired chartered status has does not appear to have been a panacea and at a time when sport and leisure services, particularly those in the public sector, are under unprecedented threat the institute has remained steadfastly silent, suggesting that its self-proclaimed role as an organisation to lead the sector to a sustainable future might be over-stated.

As the sport, leisure and culture sector finds itself, along with numerous other sectors and services, in the most interesting of times, the organisations and agencies at its core are working to maintain their viability and their relevance. Some are doing better than others and it remains to be seen which of them will be left standing when and if the smoke of austerity clears.

Jonathan Ives is the editor of The Leisue Review.

The Leisure Review, December 2012

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“As the sport, leisure and culture sector finds itself, along with numerous other sectors and services, in the most interesting of times, the organisations and agencies at its core are working to maintain their viability and their relevance. Some are doing better than others...”

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