Community Sport in Scotland – A Misunderstood Lost Cause?



In July 1975 I went to Denmark for the first time, to participate as a leader and a coach in the Aalborg Youth Games. What I experienced then – really started me thinking about how we in Scotland approach sport. I have been to Denmark many times and am proud to have many Danish friends in sport. I am so pleased to participate in another Play the Game Conference, where we will all try to discuss and learn how to improve sport. This paper represents a part of that debate. I hope also, at home in Scotland, we can have an open ongoing debate about making community and school sport much better for all.

Community Sport in Scotland – A Misunderstood Lost Cause?

Many Questions and a Few Answers

I am so pleased to deliver this paper in Denmark – a country that I have come to admire over the past 38 years. For me, with my whole career in physical education and in sport and recreation –  one of the aspects of Danish life that I admire most is the participation levels in sport. Since 1964 there has been commitment, to regular, in-depth assessment of this and the elements that influence it.  The most recent report of the Danish Institute for Sports Studies in 2011 shows a significant rise in adults participating in “regular exercise” from 56% in 2007 to 64%. Among children the number is 86%. These are remarkable figures.

Sometimes though, academic reports are not as compelling as human observation, particularly in the case I am going to cite of a Scottish football reporter assigned to cover a Nordsjelland game against Queen of the South, a modest Scottish football team, in the UEFA Cup.  The headline of his story in the Daily Record newspaper, roughly the equivalent of Ekstra Bladet was “Scotland should look to Denmark for community sport example”.   He reported stepping of the bus at Farum Park.  Here is his quote:

It wasn’t Farum Park itself, perfect small-club ground though it was. It was what surrounded it. Olympic-sized swimming pool, floodlit tennis courts, indoor courts, basketball courts, a huge squash club, the biggest gym in the area – all of them hoaching with kids as far as the eye could see. All of them community-owned, freely available and used to capacity constantly because that’s just what they do. It’s what they believe is the focal point of their social life, their family life.

Where are we in Scotland now in terms of sports participation and community sport?

I want to focus on six areas:

  1. The balance, in Scotland between elite sport and mass participation of the type that the Danish Institute of Sport is measuring in its 2011 Report.
  2. Government policy including efforts to increase physical activity and provision for community sport.
  3. The challenges of implementation.
  4. Sport in Scotland and the ‘community’.
  5. Research and measurement.
  6. Practical suggestions for discussion.

Scotland, with a population very similar to Denmark must decide a year from now whether to become independent from the United Kingdom. Denmark has plenty experience in this sort of issue with Iceland and perhaps soon Greenland and the Schleswig referendums in 1920!

If Scotland becomes independent the issue of what sports policy decisions we should be considering could get more prominence.  As a draft constitution is likely to be produced ahead of the vote it may be worth thinking about whether sport and recreation should be included.

There are some examples, including as best I can tell, Denmark! This is from the Charter of the World Sports Governance Agency:

In many national constitutions and in the draft of the European Constitution, sport sometimes plays a significant part (Danish constitution). These texts provide the basic framework of collective life, which cannot escape sport, the IOC or the IFs.  Several principles found in the constitutional provisions and recommendations of intergovernmental organisations are written in the preamble to the Olympic Charter, i.e. respect for “universal fundamental ethical principles”, the right to sport as a human right, preservation of human dignity, solidarity, non discrimination, the organisation and management of sport organisations independently of public governments and businesses, the educational value of sport, etc.. (Chappelet 2006).

Or perhaps a more surprising example like the Bolivian Constitution Article 111:

All persons have a right to sports and recreation as activities beneficial to individual and collective quality of life. The State assumes responsibility for sports and recreation as an education and public health policy, and guarantees the resources for the furtherance thereof. Physical education and sports play a fundamental role in the overall education of childhood and adolescents. Instruction in the same is obligatory at all levels of public and private education up to the diversified cycle, with such exceptions as may be established by law. The State guarantees full attention to athletes* without discrimination of any kind, as well as support for high-level competitive sports and evaluation and regulation of sports organizations in both the public and the private sector, in accordance with law. Incentives and inducements shall be established for the persons, institutions and communities that promote athletes and develop or finance sports activities, plans and programs in the country.

For me though this is all very hypothetical.  Regardless of independence consideration of sports policy decisions should be  further up the political agenda.


So let’s return to my six topics.  The first one:

1. The Balance Between Elite Sport and Overall Participation

The drivers of sport in Scotland at all levels are the Scottish Government, via SportScotland (the national agency for the development of sport and local government).  I will argue later that what is lacking in Scotland is the capacity for serious assessment of Scottish sports governance.

Having said that, this is what Audit Scotland, the respected official auditor of expenditure in Scotland, says in a specially requested 2008 report.

Significant amounts of national funding have been targeted at two priorities: increasing participation in sport, and developing Scotland’s elite athletes. Performance in these areas is mixed. Targets for young people’s participation are not being met, while adult participation is declining. Performance is better against the targets for elite athlete performance, which will be important for success at the Commonwealth Games. Staging the 2014 Commonwealth games provides a good opportunity to promote sport and benefit Scotland.

Whether spending on big events will produce more participation is a question for discussion – there is considerable research on the topic, but clearly Scotland has to improve participation and facilities.

That was 2008 but looking ahead!  Currently Sport in Scotland is enjoying an unprecedented public profile due to the London Olympic Games; the 2014 Commonwealth Games in Glasgow; and the 2014 Ryder Cup golf in Gleneagles. The costs of staging these events together with the investment in elite athlete support are considerable. This part of sport and the associated media involvement comes under the heading of Mega Events, with Sport linked with entertainment and national prestige.

Scotland is not alone in this; it is caught up in the same trend in the UK.  An important study (before the 2012 Olympics) in this said,

Italy, the UK and the Netherlands stand out as the most serious investors in elite sport. Interestingly, these nations can be identified as the best-performing nations in international competition in (Olympic) summer sports (De Bosscher, 2007).

Differences in the funding of National Governing Bodies (NGBs) generally correspond with differences in other areas of sports expenditure, as these nations also have the highest funding for NGBs for sport and elite sport.

How sport is governed has an influence on the elite/mass participation balance, at least in Scotland and the rest of the UK.  I will say more on this in the context of volunteers in sport later. Most sports have a governing body, often led by those involved with the elite and professional end of the sports spectrum. The funding usually reflects this. In September a further £10million was granted to support the 17 Commonwealth sports for the Commonwealth Games.

The nub of this is that on any comparison with other western countries, Scotland spending on elite sport is amongst the “Biggest Spenders”.

2. Government Policy Including Efforts to Increase Physical Activity and Provision for Community Sport.

Meanwhile the physical inactivity of the Scottish population has been recognised by Scottish governments. Various reports and subsequent initiatives have been undertaken.

A seminal policy paper in 2003 was Scotland’s first national physical activity strategy – Lets Make Scotland More Active. It set targets for 50% of all adults aged over 16 years and 80% of all children aged 16 years and under to meet the minimum recommended levels of physical activity by 2022. National targets are to be reviewed every 5 years. I will report on the first 5-year Review later.

In addition the Scottish Government has:

  • Determined that all stages of Scottish schooling will include compulsory Physical Education.
  • Introduced a number of major schemes to support Physical Activity participation, and some limited sports development in the communities. These include Active Schools, and more recently Community Sports Hubs.

But there are major questions about the national policies and direction of travel for community sport in Scotland. Scottish legislation to ensure opportunities for all in sport is very, very limited.

3. The Challenges of Implementation

My comment on “major questions and direction of travel” in community sport is reinforced by the 5-year review in 2013 of Lets Make Scotland More Active.  The key conclusion is that the scale of action at the local level is deemed to be insufficient to achieve an impact on population physical activity levels. Three key issues were identified in relation to this challenge: (1) translating national policy commitments for physical activity into local action, (2) leadership for physical activity and (3) robust monitoring and evaluation.

Related to (1) above, Local Government (32 Councils) is faced with unprecedented cuts in finance.  They have the major role in supporting community sport including statutory responsibilities:To support the wellbeing of the citizens and to provide adequate and appropriate sports facilities in the community.

This kind of legislative requirement is open to interpretation and commitment. The results are now becoming obvious.  In particular much of community sport is now only for those in the country who have the financial resources to participate.  We have a “white van “ approach (viz. cheap and nasty) to sports provision (viz. as long as there is some physical activity on offer – the actual level and quality doesn’t matter!).

There seems to be some obfuscation in the recent short SportScotland audit report on the use of school facilities (July 2013). Surely it is important

  • To establish a consistent and continuing support system to develop the social capital required of sport – to manage, to coach, and to officiate.
  • To support community self – management of facilities to keep costs really low for all vulnerable groups in society.
  • To develop local sports strategies (including facilities) for all kinds of sports and activities for ALL the population. Currently support and access of community clubs is very limited – with the indoor sports having to face high charges for the use of facilities.

The 5-Year Review illustrates the impact of the last point in its conclusions:

People living in the most deprived areas of Scotland were least likely to meet the activity guidelines compared with more affluent areas.

In the recent Scottish Parliament Inquiry into Support for Community Sport, it was significant that this important challenge facing community sport – cost of participation was not included in the remit of the Inquiry. The Scottish Government to is relook at the cost of access to sport and ways to reduce these costs.


4. Sport in Scotland and the ‘Community’

The governance and purposes of community sport matter. There is a place for all kinds of physical activity and recreation.  This paper unashamedly largely focuses on competitive and performance sport in the community. There are other physical activities that are not based on competition and performance.

Is sport a major component of community life in Scotland? Is participation in sport being measured accurately to learn and understand the complexity of participation? Are the club and school volunteers who often give their so much time to the community recognised and supported?

Have we forgotten that sport has the potential to play a significant role in the strengthening the sense of community, the feelings of belonging to the extended families of clubs and schools?

Where are the voices of the volunteer to be heard in the governance of sport? Often the volunteers are derided as the blazer brigade ( viz. seeing themselves as too important)

The Scottish Government and its agency SportScotland have developed a number of major schemes to support Physical Activity participation, and limited sports development in the communities. These include Active Schools, and more recently Community Sports Hubs. Active Schools has evolved over the years of the scheme, and principally employs active school coordinators, usually to cover a secondary school and its associated primary schools. Amongst the challenges is supporting the volunteers who teach and coach the children – especially in many areas that have few clubs in the community or the school.

The community sports hubs are commonly based around a secondary school, and support the opening of the facilities to the community. Major challenges here include the costs of opening the facilities (in the absence of community self management) and the competition for the use of the facilities from the commercial sector often against the fragility of the voluntary sector. Questions need to be asked about the costs associated with facilities management – when well structured clubs could/might self manage the facilities that they hire.

Scotland currently spends much of its sports budget on facility management – particularly opening facilities for casual use – responsibilities that might be better taken on by the private sector. Often Leisure Trusts have been established to manage the councils’ sports facilities. Such contract arrangements are not well managed – as the local council has no staff of its own with the knowledge to monitor and to set up contracts with providers.  There is also a case to be made of limiting the scale of these contracts to one or two facilities as in New Zealand. The strategic control of policy should rest with democratically accountable local councils.

5. Research and Measurement

Something that concerns me considerably is the commitment to independent, high quality investigation and research.

Currently all measurement of sports participation is conducted through the Scottish Household Survey. This survey asks about participation over a four – week period – no questions ask about the context of that participation. Yet, so many conclusions are derived based on the results of this clearly inadequate survey.

There have been two Scottish Parliamentary Inquiries into Community Sport over recent years. In my view these have been lacking in any real substance – the remits, the evidence offered, the visits, and the Reports themselves have been limited in their commitment to change and improve. Rather these reports appear designed to simply support the Scottish government polices and practices.

Good examples, in addition to the Danish institute reports, of serious research include:

  • Study on Volunteering in Sport – Denmark The 2004 survey of the Danish population that was conducted for the Johns Hopkins Comparative Nonprofit Sector project found that 11% of the population between 16-85 years of age and 31.5% of the total volunteering population volunteer in sport (Boje, Fridberg & Ibsen, eds., 2006: 46).
  • An analysis of homogeneity and heterogeneity of elite sports systems in six nations, 2009 International Journal of Sports Marketing & Sponsorship.
  • Connected Communities. An analysis of the capacity of volunteer sports coaches as community assets in the Big Society: a scoping review.  Dr Mark Griffith and Professor Kathleen Armour, funded by UK research councils.

Interestingly a key comment in the summary of the last report says:

Although there is some existing research on volunteer sport coaches and their role in community engagement, it tends to be somewhat fragmented and limited, and is located primarily in the national contexts of the USA, Canada and Australia. i.e. we need more and better research!

6. Practical Suggestions for Discussion

This paper concludes with some practical suggestions, which are listed for discussion.

  1. Clarifying the purposes of community sport and school sport – to reflect community development and the whole school curriculum.
  2. Measure and Investigate participation and governance of sport in the community and school sport – through hard evidence gathered by truly independent research organisations; and with more investigative journalism targeted at local community sport.
  3. Bring down the costs of participation in sport for young people.
  4. Consistently develop and support the social capital of sport – the volunteers who make it tick.
  5. Establish a community sport think tank.

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