Sport can spark change, but not on its own

Owen Hathway reflects on the findings of the latest school sports survey

Last week Sport Wales published the 2018 school sport survey results.  The magnitude of this piece of work should not be underestimated.  With over 120,000 pupils and teachers taking part, altogether, there were over 4 million individual questions answered.  That is an incredible amount of data which could have a transformational impact on the sporting offer in Wales if utilised effectively.


It is easy to be a bit cynical about how a piece of work like this can spark change, but this round of survey data has shown that where challenges have been highlighted in the past, and interventions have flowed from them, results are slowly but surely being seen.  Before we get to that though, let’s look at the headline results.


This year’s overall figure confirmed that the participation at the three or more times a week level, exclusive of PE, has remained consistent at 48%.  The temptation may be to think, ‘why has this not increased,’ but that would be to ignore the context in which that figure has been achieved.  


During the 2011 to 2013 survey cycle, participation increased by a staggering 13-percentage points.  A further 8-percentage point increase occurred between 2013-2015. This year’s figures confirm two things.  Firstly, the previous increases were not mistakes; they were not the impact of some accident, but were credible rises brought about through determined action.  What is also evident is that even against the backdrop of numerous challenges, including an education system in the process of developing a new curriculum, the participation rate has been sustained at its highest ever level.  These are positive and encouraging reflections. However, the exciting story emerges when we start to dig a little deeper into the evidence below that top line, particularly when looking at those groups who are traditionally less active.  


The participation levels of those who have a disability/impairment increased by 7-percentage points over this survey cycle.  The gap between those registering a disability and those who have not has now closed from 9-percentage points to just 1. (If we exclude special education schools, as was the case in 2015, the figure is slightly lower with a 5-percentage point increase as opposed to 7, with the gap being 3-percentage points as opposed to 1.  This is still a significant change)


In addition to this, the two least active ethnic groups from the 2015 figures both saw increases in participation. Participation among Asian-British respondents increased by 4-percentage points, while the Arab/Other ethnic group saw a 7-percentage points increase.  There are no-longer any ethnic groups with a participation level below 40%.


Previous surveys have helped focus the interventions of schools, local authorities and organisations in Wales.  It was because, in part at least, of the evidence from previous surveys, that the gaps in provision for ethnic minority and disabled participants were highlighted.  In response to that, new programmes and initiatives were put in place and we have seen movement in the right direction as a result. That is a testament to both the way this survey data can drive successful interventions, and the incredible work that has flown from it by all involved.  We are also seeing more time, resource and consideration for female participation.


These figures highlight sport’s ability to speak to all demographics and characteristics in our society.  The role sport can play in breaking down barriers is crucial to how it can help drive pan-sector improvements with education, health and the economy.


Clearly then there are positive outcomes being seen, but we should under no circumstances be complacent about the work that still exists.  It is also not the role of Sport Wales to try and present a perfect picture of what this survey is telling us. We did not undertake this huge evidence gathering exercise in order to simply reflect on the positive stories.  In fact, that would be a dereliction of the organisation’s role as the national body for sport in Wales.


While it is incredibly important that Sport Wales, the sport sector and beyond, champion and celebrate the successes we see at a local and national level, it is also our collective obligation to shine a light on the challenges we face.  Sport is a learning environment, and we should be confident about embracing with enthusiasm the need to tackle the emerging concerns from this year’s results, such as the social inequality which is evident in physical activity levels. Pupils from the most deprived backgrounds are less likely to be participating in sport with regularity and are given less time for PE in school.  


This is not a problem however that sport can resolve in isolation.  The impacts of poverty are as wide ranging as their cause, and the solutions are equally multifaceted.  As such, if we are truly to help close the physical activity deprivation gap, we will have to see a collective response to the challenge.  A response that draws on the expertise and ideas of the sport sector; the education sector, our health and community services, within our economic and cultural approaches and many more.


We must also acknowledge that sport cannot drive radical change to the overall picture itself.  The 48% participation three or more times a week figure is a strong baseline, but for those additional 52% to be enthused about physical activity to the same extent, it will require a cooperative effort.  This is why the Vision for Sport in Wales, to achieve an active nation where everyone can have a lifelong enjoyment of sport, was crafted and supported by individuals, organisation and national bodies from across all backgrounds and viewpoints.  We know that to achieve this vision we must embrace those who are sporty and those that do not consider themselves as such. Just as this survey tells us the power of sport to reach all corners of our communities, it also tells us of the need for sport to work with others to maximise that advantage.


You can hear more about the results through the Sport Wales podcast here.


Photo by Sandro Schuh on Unsplash


All articles published on Click on Wales are subject to IWA’s disclaimer.

Owen Hathway is the Head of Insight and Policy at Sport Wales.

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