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Creating a movement for movement

Three years on from its launch, our chief executive Tim Hollingsworth reflects on the changes and impact already created by our Uniting the Movement strategy.

26th January 2024

by Tim Hollingsworth
Chief executive, Sport England

They say time flies when you're having fun... It’s hard to believe, but it's three years ago today since we published Uniting the Movement, our 10-year strategy for sport and physical activity in England. 

Back in January 2021, with the country in the middle of a national lockdown, we hosted an online launch event that was virtually attended by thousands of people from across our sector.

At one point in the broadcast over 5,000 partners and interested parties were tuned in – showing the interest and appetite there was for the direction of travel being set.

The midst of a global pandemic may not have been an obvious time to set out a long-term strategy and vision, but in some ways it was the perfect moment.

Covid-19 was having a seismic impact on how people could play sport and get active: many activities were unavailable and facilities were closed.

Why we're focused on levelling the playing field

It was also becoming increasingly clear that not everyone was being impacted in the same way.  

Certain groups of people, often those who already faced additional barriers that prevented them from living active lives, were being affected more than others – compounding the inequalities that already blighted our sporting landscape.

We knew our sector would have to rebuild and we were determined to help it to build back better. As well as recover, we needed to reinvent.

It’s why tackling inequalities in sport and physical activity is at the absolute heart of Uniting the Movement. I am very proud both of this commitment and the determination my colleagues have to bring it to life.

For too long our sector has been set up to serve those most able to access it. Turning that around and seeking unashamedly to prioritise those audiences and communities previously less engaged, is a north star now in everything that we do.

People exercising with a barre in a studio

In order to bring about the change we want to see, however, we also knew we would have to revolutionise the way we worked – both how and where we invest, and the relationships we hold.  

Historically, a lot of our investments were transactional and short-term in their outlook. We would award an organisation money so they could do something that would lead to a positive but often transient outcome.

This was fine up to a point, but deep down we knew if we worked more collaboratively, and genuinely partnered with these organisations, we could create the systemic conditions which would bring about the change we needed.

It’s why we revolutionised our investment model, giving our key foundational partners – who all committed to tackling inequalities in return – a share of more than £500 million of National Lottery and government funding.

Each investment was set for up to five years, a demonstration of faith and trust as we backed them to make the right decisions to deliver while giving financial certainty as they emerged from the pandemic.

This may sound like a straightforward move but it really wasn’t – it was a sea change from the way many historic relationships have been considered and managed; as radical a move as we could have made at the start of a decade-long approach to change.

For too long our sector has been set up to serve those most able to access it. Turning that around and seeking unashamedly to prioritise those audiences and communities previously less engaged is a north star now in everything that we do.

It was also clear that we had to think differently about how we work in place. The area around where a person lives, the services they encounter and the community they are part of are all vitally important in determining how active they are likely to be. 

We’ve learnt a lot about place through our 12 local delivery pilots over the last five or six years, and our view is it’s only by working in a place and having partnerships there with locally trusted organisations that genuinely understand their communities, that you can effect real change.  

It’s transforming the way we work, and we’ve backed it by committing £250m over the next five years to invest in up to 100 places across England that really need it in terms of their levels of inactivity and deprivation in socio-economic terms.

Building on the progress we've made

It is hard to underestimate, therefore, how significant both our place investment and evolving approach to partnership has been, and this shift is creating the strong foundations on which we will build on the significant progress we’ve already made.

Not least with the launch later this year of a ‘single front door’ open fund, which will make applying for small grants from Sport England easier and more relevant for many great organisations who might currently struggle to navigate the system.

When we published Uniting the Movement, we wanted it to be more than a strategy for Sport England. We hoped it would set out a direction of travel for the sport and physical activity sector for the next decade.

More than that, we wanted to show a very different face for our sector to those people and communities struggling to make activity a part of their lives, or feeling that playing sport was simply not for them. For everyone to be able to feel the joy that moving more provides.

Three years on, I am proud of how we have progressed – with a strong sense that Uniting the Movement has given the sector a shared narrative and a common goal.

Across all of our partners there is a joint desire to ensure sport and physical activity is safe, welcoming and enjoyable for all. There is a passionate belief that no matter who you are, where you come from or what your background is, you deserve an equal chance to be active.

The challenges we face

It is not always easy – as someone once described to me, good collaboration is a contact sport – and we haven’t by any means got everything right.

Nor are we operating in a straightforward landscape – the sector still faces real headwinds from the cost of living and some of the structural and health legacies of the pandemic.

We continue to face up to integrity and welfare challenges too, and the evidence of poor behaviours from too many across our sports.

And the need to respond to the rapidly changing world around us – whether that is ensuring greater environmental sustainability or meeting the unknowns of technology and AI – is central to our future.   

But the movement is uniting. The change is happening. And together we will continue to strive for that single and common purpose. We have a lot to do, and to look forward to, in 2024.

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