Earlier this month, the DCMS announced "Creating a sporting habit for life – a new youth sport strategy" – a positive step that I applaud. But, as strategies go, is it any good?
The new strategy is not the much-needed, long-awaited national strategy for the development of sport nor does it pretend to be. The purpose of this strategy is to target young people, in its own words, "creating a sporting habit for life". Whether it will succeed or fail will be difficult to judge because from the outset, a vital component of strategy has not been defined.
While flawed and poorly researched, the previous Government was clear and concise about what success looked like: one million more people taking part in sport. The success of any strategies (or the initiatives employed in strategy's place) could be judged. When the current Government removed this target without installing a new one, they deleted that clear picture of success.
And while the talk is still of more people taking part in sport, judging success is impossible. Ten more people playing sport is "more people" but is it success? Of course not, but what is the measure? 1,000? 10,000? 100,000? We don't know. Thus from the outset any new "'strategy" faces an uphill struggle in that what it sets out to achieve has not been clearly defined. It is a basic Strategy 101 lesson, the more specifically you can describe success, the more specifically you can plan for its achievement.
"Creating a sporting habit for life" is in reality a crafty rebadging of the previous methodology employed by this and the previous Government, a policy of initiativeitis. What this document does is pull a few initiatives together in a document with the word strategy on its cover.
Is it really strategy? Yes, it is. In its purest definition strategy means "a plan or design for achieving one's aims". The Government has set out its aim, woolly though it is, and this document forms a part of their design for achieving it. However, the difference between strategy and good strategy is important and this document falls short on a number of counts.
Strategists will know the term "Insanity Planning". It refers to the practice of doing the same thing today and tomorrow that you did yesterday and expecting different results. Insanity planning plays a role in the new DCMS strategy.
Not only is the policy of initiativeitis continued (albeit thinly disguised), the strategy relies on the same experts who have informed previous Government initiatives and, according to the DCMS own statistics, failed to deliver. The strategy talks of working with a range of groups, 'the people who know sport and young people best, the very same groups and people within those groups who have been employed/funded by Government to deliver the development of sport previously.
While there are many who do know sport and young people well, the assumption that all do is naïve. Indeed, there should be no place for assumption in good strategy. A further assumption being that knowledge of sport and young people brings with it knowledge of sports development and of strategy.
Insanity planning; using the same processes, the same people and initiatives designed by the same people who designed what went before (some of which look remarkably similar despite the new names).
Developing sport properly requires an understanding of the sports development continuum, a continuum which takes the participant on a journey from foundation to participation and, assuming talent, interest and support onto performance and excellence. Laying the right foundations is of vital importance to what will come later and this area has largely been ignored by the new 'strategy' – it jumps straight in at participation without considering some basics:
1. People are more likely to pursue a lifetime of involvement in sport if they enjoy it.
2. They are more likely to enjoy it if they have been given the basic skills that facilitate enjoyment.
Thus largely overlooking primary schools (although they are mentioned as afterthought in a couple of places) is to undermine that pathway at the outset. Consider a child entering secondary school who has not learned to catch – what is the likelihood of that child enjoying any sport in which catching is a requirement? It matters not how many opportunities the child has to try those sports, the foundations were never laid to facilitate the enjoyment.
Yet, if the teaching of Physical Literacy was made a compulsory part of the primary school curriculum in the same way PE is (and will remain) in secondary schools, no child should move on to secondary school unable to catch (Physical Literacy is best taught between the ages of eight and 11). Physical Literacy covers a range of movement skills (of which catching is just one) vital to the future enjoyment of and success in sport and yet our past, present and now future systems continue to overlook them.
Would it be a difficult new policy to introduce? No, it could be easily added to the woefully small amount of time primary teaching degrees give to PE with workshops for those already teaching. Would this be expensive? No, certainly nowhere near as expensive as spending £millions on initiatives which assume skills not taught, which assume the laying of a foundation not planned for anywhere else. Given the focus of the new 'strategy' is on providing young people with a habit for life, it is surprising this effective and economical way of laying a sound foundation has been overlooked.
And yet, this "strategy" is a step in the right direction. It acknowledges the need for strategy even if only by putting the word strategy on its cover. It tries hard to pull together various initiatives to create a strategy of sorts. But it is not, nor is it a part of, a functional, well designed national strategy for the development of sport and it is this that is required, it is this that would offer the best chance of our delivering on promises of increased participation made in Singapore seven years ago (and of sustaining that increase).
What we have instead is a continuation of the silo mentality I had hoped the proposed merger between UK Sport, Sport England and the Youth Sport Trust would consign to history. There is certainly little sign of the vertical integration so key to properly effective, efficient, economical strategy.
The new "strategy" is divided into five sections, the aspirations of each section is laudable but I am looking at this from a quality analysis perspective, not one of how warm the documents' wish-list makes me feel.
The first aspiration is to build a lasting legacy of competitive sport in schools, something I am a supporter of. The focus, indeed the only offering is of the School Games. The document suggests that all children will be offered competitive opportunities through the School Games but I wonder, what of those with poorly developed physical literacy and how many life-long (or at least long-term) participants such an initiative will bring?
Aspiration number two is on improving links between schools and community sports clubs something that sounds like a rehash of New Labour's 'School-Club Links' initiative only with fewer resources (same experts, same solutions = insanity planning). Credit where it is due though, at least this section lays out some clear targets by which to measure success. For example football has pledged that 2,000 of their clubs will be linked to schools by 2017. Whether that includes those already linked is not made clear however while 2000 sounds a large number if you break it down it is eight clubs linking to schools per county per year. The "all-sport" target is 6,000, the equivalent of 24 clubs from all sports linking to schools per county per year. This is not what I call ambitious, representing only around half a club linking per county per year from the 46 sports Sport England currently fund.
Working with those sports governing bodies is aspiration number three. What is described in this section is not even an initiative; it is an outline structure that will require strategy from the individual sports to enable delivery of Government policy via Whole Sport Plans. Whole Sport Plans is a grand sounding name for something started under the last government and which, far from being 'whole sport' are judged solely on government policy and funding targets.
There is no additional requirement for each sport to provide evidence – or even have – any plans for the sport that provide development outside that decreed by government policy. In other words sport's governing bodies are now positioned so as to be solely answerable to government rather than the sports in their care.
Under New Labour many even restructured to ensure this. Government trusts governing bodies to deliver calling them "the experts". These are the same experts deemed incapable of delivering previous policy, when they were also referred to as 'the experts'. I repeat what I said above – being an expert in sport is not the same thing as being an expert in sports development which is not the same thing as being an expert in strategy.
The fourth aspiration is on investing in facilities, an aspiration which must be welcomed by all involved in sport. That said, the "strategy" announces nothing new instead repeating the funding promises made in the 'Places, People, Play' initiative announcement. It is worth remembering Seb Coe's warnings in Singapore in 2005 that no building has ever inspired anyone to take up sport; buildings must be a delivery tool for properly planned development.
The fifth and final aspiration reported in the "strategy" is that of opening up provision and investing in communities. Again, this is something all involved in sport will welcome. However, the document gives no clues as to the level of investment or how it will be targeted. The case study provided in this section offers no clarification, describing a badminton club which has "no joining fee, no membership fee a no need for a partner – creating a club that could sustain itself for the long-term". How is not made clear and, as with all things strategy, "how" is a vital question overlooked at the author's peril.
So, we have a strategy of sorts, which despite my comments above, is a positive but small step in the right direction. Many of the aspirations are laudable but the absence of any meaningful description of what success looks like, sound sports development philosophy, vertically integrated thinking or, indeed, expertise suggests that at last the government are trying but must raise their game if they are to improve further.
Jim Cowan is a former athlete, coach, event organiser and sports development specialist who is the founder of Cowan Global, a company specialising in consultancy, events and education and training. For more details click here.