“Government Policy”, two words that generally make you reach for the remote, make you click on that Youtube video of Dogs doing gymnastics instead of reading further, or ask the sensible question of “So What”?
The National Sports Policy 2018-2027 was launched by the Minster of Tourism, Transport and Sport in July of this year. It is a wide ranging and comprehensive vision which should impact on all of those working in anything related to Sport, Physical Activity and Physical Education in Ireland over the next decade. One of UL Beo’s remits from the “Breaking New Ground” report was to try engage and influence national policy. In the consultation process, a sub group of the UL Beo advisory Board drafted a submission to contribute to the formation of the policy.
The policy has been, broadly speaking, warmly received. In a 106-page document that touches on every aspect of sport in Ireland, not everything is going to be agreed upon by everyone, but it is an important document, that is consistent with other government policies, with current practise and has some innovations that should be welcomed.
The key thrust of the policy will be to grow participation in sport. As the policy points out, the government spends €1.5 billion annually combating the results of physical inactivity and our more sedentary lifestyles. We often hear of the gathering storm of an obesity crisis and we may well be already in the first showers. However, the benefits of physical activity to our physical and mental health as well as to the social fabric of our society have been well documented. The Healthy Ireland initiative and the National Physical Activity Plan both highlight the critical importance of living active lifestyles and much of what is suggested in the Sports Policy has already been signposted.
While the policy is not a budget statement or a commitment to spending, the policy looks for government to increase its current spending on sport from €112m annually to €220m. In the context of a €1.5 billion bill to our health service and the fact for every €100 that the government invests in sport it gets €149 back in taxes, the case for investment is easily made. Yet we have significantly underinvested in for decades and far too often, our investment wasn’t strategic, was scattergun and affected less by policy and more by politics. The national sports policy is a very important step in setting out a vision that has clear priorities and direction for that future investment.
Part of the vision for the policy is that we adopt a “life course” perspective around participation. From early childhood and the development of physical literacy skills to encouraging and supporting people being active right throughout their lives, the scope of the national sports policy is very broad and requires a multi-agency approach. It does, for example, point out the importance of Physical Education in our schools, but this is not a whole of government approach a la Healthy Ireland and therefore the language is limited to phrases such as “work with” and “support” in terms of improving the provision to our pre, primary and post primary school populations.
One interesting aspect that the policy does touch upon is the responsibility we all should share in making children more active. One of the 54 action points refers to a campaign to “inform and educate parents around physical literacy and positive habits around sport and physical activity”. I am a great believer in our collective responsibility for the improvement of our own circumstances, rather than expecting the government or the school or Santa Claus to make it all better. I do welcome that challenge. I do think the majority of people know the benefits, our challenge is to actually do something positive.
The policy also, sets out some priorities around addressing some of the “gradients in participation. The fact that only 28% of members of clubs in Ireland are female, and that only 21.6% are from the 3 lowest income groups or that 22.9% of members have any disability are all statistics that have been reported repeatedly, including in the Irish Sports Monitor for 2017. The policy priorities spending in participation to try to address these challenges. It also recognises that in individual participation that the differences between, gender for example, are significantly less, so proposes investment and support of getting Ireland Swimming, Walking and Cycling. In a very un-Irish way then looks for cohesion in our investment in infrastructure to reflect those priorities by for example investing in the building of Swimming pools.
The responsibility of delivering these increases in participation lie with, Local Sports Partnerships and by extension local authorities and National Governing bodies of Sport. This is consistent with what has been occurring in practise for several years and builds on the already built infrastructure. One of the encouraging priorities from the policy from a University point of view is it’s commitment to an evidence based approach, which should create more opportunities for research and evaluation partnerships on participation and performance programmes into the future to assess their delivery.
The headlines from Sports policy documents tend to be around the high performance side of things. What gets in the paper is how are we going to win more medals? As a young(ish) athlete I was at the launch of the first “carding” scheme 20 years ago, which was our first attempt at a proper cohesive support system for athletes. That original vision from our own late friend Professor Pat Duffy , has grown and significantly improved the support environment for athletes in this country, but still based on the basic concept first proposed. The new national sport policy recognises the success of that vision and just calls for a refresh of our approach. Anyone who has worked at that end of sport in Ireland would welcome that general idea. Much of what the policy calls for is challenging but common sense.
In a previous life, working for a National governing body of sport we waited until January each year to find out our funding for the coming year. High Performance sport operates in Olympic cycles and having a programme that lasted 4 years and a funding cycle that lasted one created obvious problems and uncertainty and I would argue actual harm on our ability to develop structures and recruit excellent coaches and support staff. One of the key suggestions from the policy is the introduction of multi annual funding and secondly to bring a tiered funding system to support those National Governing bodies with stronger high performance programmes.
That is just the tip of the iceberg really. There are many other important issues addressed such as supporting volunteers, addressing inequalities, development of facilities governance and much more. In my experience there is a great interdependence in sport between all of the aspects that the policy covers. One might not initially get the connection between the volunteer who sweeps the changing room to the Olympic Gold medallist to the improvement in our nations health but sport and physical activity in Ireland has its roots in the community and that link is there.
The UL Beo submission to the National Sports policy raised my interest in the area of governance and policy and I applied to an open call for to join the board of Sport Ireland. I was delighted to have been recently appointed, along with my fellow PESS graduate Lynne Cantwell, to the board and look forward to contributing to the further development of policy and strategy in this area, informed by the work and insight of all of my colleagues in PESS, at this exciting and challenging time for sport and physical activity.
Gary Ryan is UL Beo Project Manager and you can contact Gary via email at Gary.Ryan@ul.ie.