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Britain is home to a host of exciting initiatives that get people active in sports and help the jobless in to work. The success of the latter has been remarkable – 2.4 million new private sector jobs have been filled since the beginning of the last parliament. No such renaissance is taking place in grassroots sport however, with the number of people taking part in at least thirty minutes of physical activity per week down since 2013, casting some doubt over our Olympic legacy.
The government’s consultation on the future direction of sport has therefore come at an opportune time. This is our chance to ameliorate this alarming trend and to give programmes that drive participation centre stage. Doing this requires us to take the learnable lessons from exemplar initiatives, bottle them up and replicate what makes them successful on a national scale.
This is also an opportunity to re-imagine the way we approach sport; not just as an activity with health and community benefits, or for the development of elite athletes, but as a medium that can deliver wide-ranging social change. Targeted interventions and programmes structured around sport have shown time and again that they can be transformative. Just ask residents of Elthorne Park in North London; renowned for its intractable gang culture, youth crime in the area fell by two thirds after the Premier League’s ‘Kickz’ programme – which gets kids off the street and playing football – came to the area.
Using sport as a ‘hook’ has much more transformative potential which, if we can tap into it, could deliver a plethora of social benefits through means that are not only enjoyable, but could produce savings elsewhere in government.
Statistics show that the incentives built into the welfare system aren’t as effective at getting mental health sufferers back in to the work force. Of the 162,000 participants with ‘mental and health disorders’ who receive an employment and support allowance, only 8% have found sustained employment through the Work Programme; an initiative that has enjoyed considerable success with other groups. This is not through lack of desire: there’s a high ‘want-to-work’ rate in this cohort.
It’s important we understand why poor mental health can prove more insurmountable to job-seekers than other challenges that people face, and that more is done to support individuals through their recovery, and hopefully back in to gainful employment.
Mind, the mental health charity, are proving that sport has a valuable role to play in this through their recently launched peer support ‘Get Set to Go’ initiative, run in conjunction with Sport England. The initiative supports participants as they engage with sports in their communities and helps them to embrace a more active lifestyle. Physical activity and comradery, an inherent facet of team sport, have proven links with good mental health, and the programme has had an immediate impact.
Since its launch in July, the anecdotal feedback has been overwhelmingly positive. The mental health and wellbeing of many participants has improved significantly – so much so that, in a few instances, individuals have started to take on roles with the programme and now act as mentors to those who join after them. Harnessing ‘lived experience’ in this way is central to Mind’s approach and is the type of learnable lesson that needs to be replicated elsewhere. Making meaningful guidance available and offering opportunities for individuals to have a stake in the future delivery of programmes they are engaged in also has a huge amount of relevance for initiatives that seek to build community cohesion and reduce recidivism, too.
‘Get Set to Go’ demonstrates that there are programmes that can simultaneously increase participation in sport and utilise it as a vehicle for social good. The government has an opportunity to replicate these achievements on a much bigger scale if it uses the consultation to change the way we approach and administer funding for sports programmes.
We should seize it.