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Posted 30th September 2013

The Participation Conundrum 

Sport England’s newly published research into how we participate in sport – How we play – the habits of community sport -   provides a vital insight into the nations sporting habits.

It appears habit is the key word and like any addiction, the plentiful and cheap supply of good quality opportunities appears to provide the key.

My own experience (not of addiction I hasten to add) would echo this........... The Tuesday night ‘fat dads football’ at the local leisure centre once interrupted by a couple of meetings or parents evenings always proves difficult to get back in to. Similarly every April and May I commit and prepare for the Manchester 10k, training and living a monastic life. The yearn for the Friday night pint is replaced by a desire to get home for a run. But despite promising to train on, every year as soon as the finish line is crossed it is back to old habits!

The report found that friends and social influences are also critical to participation, as is flexibility in the sporting offer.

There is little doubt the pressures of modern life get increasingly in the way of sport. My local cricket team has just finished a season when getting teams out every weekend has proved more difficult than ever and cricket is not alone. The first game of the rugby season, saw the once mighty Orrell Rugby Club unable to fulfil a second team fixture against my local club for lack of players.

All national governing bodies are being challenged by Sport England to develop new flexible forms of the game to attract and retain participants. Touch rugby is certainly taking off locally and people who have not played before are getting a taste of the game and adding to the participation numbers but there are no signs that they will convert to the 15 man game and maybe that doesn’t matter. More worryingly however is a number of ‘old farts’ are now playing touch as an alternative to turning out for the 3rd and 4th teams. There is a danger therefore that alternative forms of the game become exactly that an alternative and not a gateway, with little impact on overall participation numbers.

These are tough decisions for policy makers. There are examples in the report of newly funded programmes and initiatives to drive participation. All these appear to be propped up by grant-aid, whilst the traditional voluntary club structure may be left behind. Whether a rugby club can be sustained on a thriving touch rugby section remains to be seen?

NGBs and policy makers are clearly trying to tackle the issue from both ends but is there a danger that in ten years time we’ll all be ‘free running’ up and down the road but unable to get a game of organised recreational cricket – whilst not wanting to sound all ‘John Major’ it makes you think.......

Is there a danger as we chase the participation numbers that we lose sight of what we are trying to achieve for sport and what the voluntary club infra-structure has always provided – good quality, cheap opportunities to play sport on a regular basis with friends in a social environment?

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Posted 21st November 2011

What future for Strategic Planning for Sport? . . . . in the latest of his regular blogs looking at professional and personal aspects of sport Neil Allen explores the changing times for strategic planning for sport 

Any objective analysis of the past few months might lead readers to the conclusion that there is very little future given the changes being driven through by the new Coalition Government, (not least new relaxed panning proposals), and set against the backdrop of the enormous financial challenges facing the local authority sector.

Faced with the changing landscape it is tempting to sound the death knell for strategic sport and leisure planning however in the new landscape, the role of strategic planning and the development of objective needs and evidence for sport will be arguably even more critical and real. Real in the sense that we will no longer be developing strategic facility plans for sport, which are often consigned to sit on the shelf but instead the sector will need to be undertaking strategic planning that will drive the future shape and delivery of our sport and leisure services.

The sport sector is in a unique position to develop a robust approach to strategic needs assessment as part of the wider strategic commissioning process. The sector is now data rich -  Active People, Active Places Power, Market Segmentation and the Facilities Planning Model (FPM) represent powerful tools on which to develop robust and objective strategic needs and evidence.

The approach to rationalization highlighted by Rotherham MBC, where the authority rationalized from 11 pools to 4, relied heavily on the use of planning tools to make the case for change and demonstrate high quality provision well located would have a positive impact on participation as well as the bottom line. Phil Rogers, Director of Leisure at Rotherham MBC viewed as critical the intervention by Sport England and the use of the Facilities Planning Model (FPM) techniques to help provide the objective analysis of current and future needs. This was particularly critical to sway member views to help deliver what were viewed as radical and challenging proposals. Robust needs and evidence supported by hard data and tools can help to cut through political and often subjective notions of need.

The Coalition Government is committed to easing red tape in the planning system and decentralizing decision making to local communities. Whilst the localism agenda may not drive the need for centrally led flowery strategies, objective needs and evidence will still be a fundamental element of the decision making process. Strategic needs and evidence will be central to the new localism agenda. Objective and robust needs and evidence will help to protect and determine joint needs between local communities with potentially differing views and local authorities.

Supporting strategic commissioning, asset transfer and the new era of localism, strategic planning will therefore be even more fundamental. Using assets innovatively and effectively, asset transfer will also be a key new delivery option which will emerge over the next few years. Encouraging local communities to maximize the use of assets to deliver community benefits will require a clear and objective understanding of needs and priorities. Strategic planning, utilizing the tools and data in the sector will help to determine the right long-term future choices for sport.

The future of strategic planning for sport will undoubtedly be different but it will be even more pivotal as part of a wider process about whole service delivery; safeguarding and ensuring the right facilities to drive participation in the context of efficiencies and savings, making the case to protect facilities and services, supporting the prioritisation of resources as part of the commissioning agenda and acting as ‘referee’ to deliver the localism agenda.

So whist the world is certainly changing the need for objective needs and evidence will be even more critical, so the future role of strategic planning for sport is positive and exciting. Using tools innovatively and doing it for real to help define services as opposed to producing dusty tomes which sit on the shelf.

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Posted 13th September 2011

Whither School Sport . . . in the second of his monthly blogs looking at professional and personal aspects of sport Neil Allen explores the changing times for community sport on school sites

 The Academies Bill could mean thousands of schools opting out of local authority control and a much-reduced role for local councils in education, what this might mean for sport is as yet unclear. Figures as of June 2011 indicated 1244 schools have applied to be an academy since June 2010. At present the total number of open Academies, including those opened under the previous government, now stands at 704. Alongside Free Schools this heralds unprecedented change in the education sector.
With the breaking of the ties from local authority control this cements the schools remit to act independently across all aspects of the school management including sport. But why does this matter.
According to Sport England figures 76% of sports halls and 73% of Artificial Grass Pitches (AGPs) are located on educational sites (Active Places), a massive part of our sporting infra-structure funded to a large part by public funding and Lottery support could be at risk.

The stakes are therefore high, if schools decide to alter the goalposts and access to provision, the impact on sporting opportunity could be significant. But it is not only schools, whilst there is an increasing level of threat to community use on school sites through schools transferring to Academy (or other independent status), the local authorities reduced capacity to subsidise dual-use sites is also beginning to impact. Often prompted by cuts, but with local authorities sometimes taking their bat home in response to schools opting for independence, the impact is no less significant.
Stories are emerging of Academies not recognizing previous funding and access agreements and authorities withdrawing subsidies leaving schools to fend for themselves.
Continued partnership is clearly critical from both sides, but opportunity also exists for schools to explore new and innovative partnerships as the policy framework begins to change. Examples of schools working with national governing bodies, local clubs and third sector agencies in partnership to deliver community sport are emerging. Whilst new Academy Heads may have an initial focus on getting the curriculum and core education management right, the signs are that they will want to continue to position themselves as hubs of the community and play a key role in the wider community and health offer, but support will be required.
Time will tell how things play out but as a sports sector we must all work to advocate the importance of maintaining and enhancing the critical role of schools as community sports providers. So much has been achieved over the past fifteen years, supported by the Lottery, to build the infra-structure now in place, it must not be allowed to fail through local disagreements or the whim of individuals, the stakes are just too high.
NAA have been appointed by Sport England to provide the supports and develop new Guidance on the Community Use of School Sports Facilities in the light of this changing context and challenges ahead. The guidance will offer support and help to schools as they embark on their community use journey, setting out the key considerations, with case studies highlighting different community management approaches. 
Any thoughts on the issues raised or examples of good practice please email

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Posted : July 2011

The Joy of Sport . . . In his first of a new weekly blog looking at personal and professional aspects of sport Neil Allen witnesses the value of sport first hand and the joy it can bring personally and collectively at all ends of the sporting continuum.

six of the best book coverOn Thursday 7th July 2011Travis Scholes hit six sixes in a single over for Lymm Oughtrington Park Cricket Club. The feat was achieved in the quarter final of the 20/20 cup against a highly competitive Ashton on Mersey team, who are in the league above Lymm.

The magnificent feat brought great joy to Trav, the watching spectators and even some of the Ashton on Mersey fielders, although most of them were positioned in the farmers field which neighbours the ground on ball recovery duty. Travs historic efforts came in a personal total of 144 and a team score of 204. Needless to say Lymm easily won the game and progressed to the cup semi-final. All who witnessed it agreed they had seen a great sporting moment, which few cricket fans will ever witness.

By contrast Lymm Ladies were playing on the neighbouring school pitch on the same evening. In only their second ever game Lymm were receiving a bit of a battering, not great sporting endeavor, but massive enthusiasm from a team just starting on their sporting journey. In the midst of it all Lorraine Robinson hit her first ever four, a watershed mark in a team total of 24. Lorraine’s feat, was met with as equal joy by Lorraine and teammates as Travs achievements, proving cricket (and sport) is not really about winning or losing but all about achieving individual personal milestones, no matter how large or small.

If a reminder were needed of the value of playing sport at whatever level the message is clear, at its most basic level sport is about individual joy and achievement, which collectively shared can be a powerful force - so all of us who play, promote and ‘sell sport’ let’s not forget the fun message . . . once sports ceases to become fun and provide a platform for joy for those involved, the task to encourage people to start, grow and excel in sport will be an uphill battle.

Well done Lorraine and Trav for reminding us why we should all play sport, for fun and enjoyment and demonstrating the value at all ends of the sporting continuum. sport is of course  also all about progression and setting goals so next for Trav - win the cup and for Lorraine how about a six next time out?!


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