In May this year, former First Minister Henry McLeish delivered his second set of recommendations on the running of Scottish football. Though this undertaking did not advocate the same root and branch reform his initial examination of the Scottish Football Association (SFA) envisaged, McLeish called for an equally, if not larger, revolutionary change.
“Football clubs were born out of their communities, be it church groups or miners, and it is time to look to see what further role they can now play in their communities,” reported the former professional player in reference to Scotland’s thirty Scottish Football League (SFL) teams spanning three divisions. Holyrood policymakers, implored by McLeish to explore the potential for a more holistic approach, were left with little excuse. After all, the perfect example lies less than four miles away.
Established in 2006 by the Edinburghbased East of Scotland Football League outfit, Spartans, the Spartans Community Football Academy encourages more than 2,000 players from aged three upwards to lace up their boots each week. “In simple terms, Spartans’ goal at the outset was to become part of the fabric of North Edinburgh, to provide North Edinburgh with a community inspired and managed facility which people of all ages could enjoy,” said Development Manager, Douglas Samuel.
A stand-alone company limited by guarantee and a registered charity, the academy has clear social aims and objectives that dictate the services and programmes it provides to the local area and its inhabitants, all of which exist under the philosophy of ‘Live Together, Play Together, Win Together’. Using sport as a driving force to deliver recognizable outcomes on social issues such as health, education and crime has been engrained as an aspiration rather than an afterthought in an attempt to emerge as one of the top community clubs in Scotland by 2015.
“Our signature programme is Street Football in a Safe Place, where young people enjoy the opportunity to play at the academy for free every day, in exchange for signing a player’s contract,” added Samuel. “The contract promotes desirable behaviours such as no swearing, no litter on the pitch, no bullying… On top of this, we deliver a significant number of hours as part of our School Visit Programme for a large number of local primary schools. Out-with the school day, we deliver Homework Clubs, after school football coaching programmes, weekend coaching programmes and our ‘Bend it Like Beesley’ week-long holiday programmes.
“We have delivered a great deal and made great strides in a number of different areas, be it working with the local schools [and] our partners at the NHS. It’s for others to judge and assess whether or not we are one of the best community clubs in Scotland. However, we do believe we have made great strides since our doors opened in December 2008, although there is still so much we can and hope to do in the future.”
It’s this touchstone the Scottish Government together with its national agency for sport, sportscotland, is keen to see replicated throughout the country if a target of four in five children up to age 16 meeting the recommended level of at least one hour of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day is to be realised by 2022. According to figures included in the latest release of the Scottish Health Survey – stretching back to 2010 – 72 per cent of children between the ages of two and 15 are on course with sports and exercise, one of five areas encompassed within child physical activity, the others being walking, housework, active play, and schoolbased activity. Imbued with the impetus generated by Scotland’s third Commonwealth Games arriving in Glasgow in two years’ time, the goal has become getting people active by whatever means at their disposal.
Plans to exceed a target of 150 Community Sport Hubs – one of sportscotland’s flagship initiatives since its launch two years ago – by 2016 come as a welcome development. Opening up the community and sporting estate to local clubs and sports groups, thanks to an annual budget of £1.5m per year over the next three years, could help reverse a worrying trend that the Director of Sports Development at the University of Stirling, Peter Bilsborough, believes is putting up barriers to participation for certain young people.
“There has been an increase in the costs of clubs using facilities and that is a serious challenge for sports clubs as well,” said Bilsborough. “That for me is where we’ve seen a silent revolution in the last ten years. In the 70s, in 1974 till about 1984, sports provision in local authorities in Scotland was thriving. Every local authority had a comprehensive leisure service led by a director of leisure and that was at district level.
“All that infrastructure is gone and what we’ve seen in the last seven or eight years is this quiet revolution of local authorities actually stopping directly making provision for sport in the community with the establishment of leisure trusts… Now these leisure trusts, for the most part, are relatively autonomous, they’re certainly not as accountable as a local authority, and they have been asked to take over the management of local authorities’ leisure facilities and also the services that they offer. Inevitably, they are charities that have to generate income to meet their costs and they’re being squeezed in terms of charging.
“What we are seeing is all leisure trusts, slowly but surely, they’ve had to increase their prices for anybody and everybody who wants to consume access to a facility or one of their services. And we are seeing a squeeze on participation. We’re seeing sport slowly narrowing in terms of the kinds of folk who are taking physical activity because some people now, quite frankly can’t afford to do X and Y.”
Claims of a protracted squeeze have been borne out to an extent in recent years. Research undertaken by sportscotland on charges for sports facilities in 2011-12 illustrated a general upward price trend since 2006, albeit increases were considered “marginal” compared to general cost of living increases. In the last period on record running until April 2011, though, charges rose more than in other years as 17 of the 19 selected sports and activities experienced a jump. Audit Scotland’s analysis of physical recreation services in local government a year earlier found around a quarter of council facilities remained in poor condition with a far from rosy outlook for public spending a cause for concern in the long run.
Any improvements to local facilities aimed at young people will come as little comfort if dropoffs in participation aren’t addressed, however. With implementation of the ever-contentious Curriculum for Excellence (CfE) and further rollout of the Active Schools Network, which now covers every school in Scotland, switching children on and keeping them switched on before, during and after the school day has come to be considered vital if activity rates are to avoid a slump further down the line.
More than 400 co-ordinators and managers are now involved in Active Schools’ clusters, while 84 per cent of primary schools and 92 per cent of S1 to S4 pupils in secondary schools are now hitting a target of at least two hours and two periods of PE a week respectively. “If young people remain active throughout their school years and they go onto university, they tend to retain their participation because there are significant opportunities within a university environment,” said Mary Allison, Head of Strategic Planning at sportscotland.
“What will tend to happen, we think – and the data is indicative rather than conclusive around it – is that young people who drop out of sport at say 12 or 13 don’t tend to pick it up necessarily then at a later age. There is continuity for those who remain active throughout school so our focus is on how do we keep those young people active throughout their school years until they leave school because it appears that those who leave school active remain active.”
Addressing a growing gap between girls and boys has necessitated “special efforts”, added Allison, amid suggestions from researchers at the Universities of Strathclyde and Newcastle this summer, following a study of more than 500 eight to 10-year-olds, exercise levels are starting to differ at the primary school stage. Holyrood understands discussions between sportscotland and its partners, designed to finalise details over the rollout of an Active Girls programme within the wider network, are at an advanced stage with an announcement expected in the autumn.
Indeed, exploring all available options within the school system is considered critical by all, but is an emphasis on increasing participation in physical activity emerging as a substitute for improving performance in sport specifically?
“It’s at different levels, isn’t it,” Minister for Commonwealth Games and Sport, Shona Robison, told Holyrood. “Young people coming into a sport, it’s all about participation at that level. They then, if they become more interested in sport, it might be something that they play to a more senior level and then the very small number who are able to progress beyond that into elite level will do so. It’s a pyramid… but you need to get that interest at the bottom of the pyramid for anybody to have the chance of floating to the top of their sport.”
An opportunity for every nine-year-old to learn how to play golf as part of a sixweek programme ahead of the Ryder Cup at Gleneagles in September 2014 signals government efforts to develop top Scottish talent from the bottom up, added Robison.
Forgetting to take those further down Scotland’s educational track on the same journey is, according to student leaders, where policymakers are squandering a massive opportunity. “It’s a bit harsh but we’re almost wasting the investment in Active Schools if we don’t follow it through into tertiary education where we know 60 per cent of the people are going to end up,” insisted Stew Fowlie, chief operating officer of Scottish Student Sport (SSS), the recently merged umbrella body for sport within the higher and further education sector.
He added: “It’s absolutely right that the country spends £13.5m on Active Schools a year – we certainly wouldn’t want to take any of that away. But I think where we are frustrated is that higher and further education has grown massively, particularly in the last 20 years. The university sector in the late 80s had about 80,000 students in it and it’s pretty much trebled in 25 years… There’s never really been public investment in sport in higher education and now in further education and I just think that’s an oversight. I believe we’ve got a better chance of switching people on or keeping them engaged if the investment goes through their educational route.
“[I’m] conscious that most of the money in Scottish sport is within local authorities. That is fine, they’ve got a big role to play. But I don’t think it’s the easiest way to target people and I think the Government is missing a trick by not just following through the good messages and the investment.”
Fowlie, a former Sports Union President at the University of Edinburgh who is now based in the capital, has seen first hand the facilities higher education institutions like Edinburgh have to offer, a £5m extension to their Pleasance Sports Complex last August among the latest developments. An audit of sports provision across the sector is expected in the coming months, though preliminary findings suggest a continuing increase in investment in sport departments, facilities and the subsequent number of visitors as sport comes to occupy a higher strategic priority within HE institutions.
However, efforts to encourage universities across Scotland to clear Wednesday afternoon timetables to pave the way for such activities are a “constant effort”, conceded Fowlie, while attempts to realise the ambition within the college sector are at a preliminary stage amid uncertainty over the final results of a regionalisation agenda being advanced by the Scottish Government.
Of course, once the lights dim on the closing ceremony in London this summer, attention will undoubtedly turn to Glasgow in two years’ time as hopes of a lasting legacy pick up pace. Aside from the obvious regeneration of the city’s East End that will remain long after the Games have gone, the opportunity to raise the profile of sport in Scotland is one ministers are desperate to make the most of.
The evidence suggests an uphill challenge awaits them. Generally speaking, whetting children’s appetites won’t constitute as much of a challenge as sustaining that hunger. Research in the wake of the Scottish women curlers’ Winter Olympics victory in 2002 found 38 per cent of those new to the sport were influenced by television coverage while 36 per cent were buoyed up by the Salt Lake City success. Rinks and clubs that enjoyed the longer lasting effects were, unsurprisingly, those best prepared to channel the increased level of demand through initiatives or promotions.
One of those involved in the study, John Taylor, a research fellow at the University of Stirling’s School of Sport, told Holyrood: “The evidence of the impact on sports participation is not particularly strong after an event. There might be a small spike in some people taking part on a kind of informal basis. But the evidence that when a nation or any major event is taking place that there is an increase in participation after and that participation continues, there’s no real evidence of a major event having done that.
“A lot of emphasis is going on trying to create a legacy for the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow. And whether that legacy is achieved in terms of sports participation, that just remains to be seen. But quite a lot more effort is going in to try to do that than has happened on previous events because it doesn’t happen just as a matter of course.”