Our Active Lives Adult Survey data release in October 2019 showed that a record 1 million more people are now active than when the survey began in 2015, with 28.6 million people hitting the amount of physical activity needed to benefit their health and wellbeing. This is the highest number ever recorded and tells us that sport and physical activity is meeting the needs and fitting into the lives of many millions of people.
But while this is fantastic news, there is also a challenge beneath the figures that means we still have so much more to do, and myself and the LSEG (lower socio-economic groups) team are committed to doing just that.
The reality is that sport and physical activity still isn’t reaching everyone - millions of people are not able to benefit from being active and are not getting the positive benefits that an active lifestyle can bring.
To put this in the stark terms, just 16% of inactive people fall into the highest socio-economic group – meaning they do less than 30 minutes of physical activity or sport a week.
By contrast, a third of inactive people (33%) come from the lower socio-economic group, often referred to as NS SEC 6-8. Correspondingly, opposite patterns can also be seen when you look at the socio-economic backgrounds of active people.
This inequality is unacceptable and represents a huge shared challenge for all of us with an interest in helping more people from this demographic to not just access sport and physical activity, but to shout about the importance and value of doing so as part of a lifestyle change.
These inequalities follow through into the development of elite athletes too, which means national teams aren’t representative of the nation and provide few role models to inspire more young people to be active – making the challenge ever harder.
That’s why addressing this is such a priority for us and is at the heart of our strategy.
The reality is that sport and physical activity still isn’t reaching everyone
While we have to use standard measurement, we must remember that behind the neat classifications of NS-SEC 6-8, or the phrase LSEG used so often by us in the sector, there are millions of real people, experiencing all the complexity, diversity and, sometimes, chaos that characterises real life.
In the coming months we will publish a new evidence base, focused on people from lower socio-economic groups and their experiences of sport and physical activity. This research will help us and our partners to think about the actual people behind the socio-economic classifications who don’t see sport and physical activity as a high priority.
To be really blunt, it’s very difficult for physical activity to be high on your agenda when there are choices to be made between putting food on the table and paying a utility bill, when pressures and challenging circumstances make life really hard and difficult to comprehend at times, and when sport and physical activity provision hasn’t ever really been designed to consider your needs and perspectives – particularly around cost, accessibility and location.
of inactive people come from LSEGs, with just 16% from higher socio-economic groups
Our work with a range of partners, including our £4m National Lottery investment into organisations working with people facing economic disadvantage, is a big part of that. Just one year in, we are already starting to change lives and deliver real impact – 5,000 people have had the opportunity to get active so far through a range of projects.
And, crucially, this work is adding to our understanding of how we can help to reduce barriers to participation, and teaching us some valuable lessons that are shaping our ongoing approach.
By investing in organisations that wouldn’t traditionally approach Sport England, we’re building a strong network of valued partners who may not have sports expertise, but bring a deep understanding of their audiences, their challenges and needs, and how to do things differently so that sport and physical activity can meet these needs.
Let’s be clear, there is no silver bullet or single programme that will create immediate change. Circumstances vary from place to place and person to person. It takes time to genuinely understand communities, time to build relationships and establish trust, time to try different approaches and to understand why something is or isn’t working.
Creating sustainable, relevant opportunities to be active that genuinely help the people who take part to build sustainable habits, is the priority.
Swooping into a place with a short-term project or programme will only create resentment and that can sometimes be more damaging than delivering no project at all.
Our work has also reinforced that collaboration is key, within sport… and beyond.
Our partners are showing us that how sport and physical activity is delivered can be as important as what’s delivered.
We are learning: the value of a flexible and patient approach for people new to being active; that language matters (the word sport can be off putting); that some settings like gyms can be intimidating; and the crucial role a supportive coach and session leader has in building trust.
Our partnership with the sport for development coalition is playing a key role in our learning. They represent a number of organisations, meaning they have breadth and reach into groups who collectively share our ambition to reduce stubborn inequalities and use sport to deliver positive social outcomes.
Community comes first
This work has also reinforced our belief in community-led provision. Ideas to connect people with sport and physical activity can’t be ‘done to’ communities, they can only ever be ‘created with’.
Communities know their needs much better than any national body or organisation like Sport England ever can. The best approaches are those that enable, equip and empower people to create change for themselves.
Developing community networks that tap into the relationships, trusted organisations and connections that already exist, and using trusted local volunteers, greatly improves the chances of sustaining a project.
And as we look ahead and begin to develop our new strategy, we are determined to do things differently, fill in our empathy gap and help more people who don’t feel that being active is for them.
We will maximise the learning from the important work our 12 local delivery pilots are doing, recognising the importance of dedicating the right amount of time to understand the local system – the combination of local authorities, leisure providers, community groups, transport providers etc. – how it operates and the benefits and challenges that the system presents.
Our ability to influence this system, in the places with most need, is critical in helping to remove the barriers that have existed for so many years, leading to a different way of working that promotes collaboration and inclusivity.