This Green and Sedent Land: A New Sport Policy for England

Having lived in the UK for a few years now, I have witnessed a near constant cascade of physical activity policies. In 2014, the UK Government wrote “Move More Living More”, a short document aimed at salvaging something of the Olympic participation legacy. Later that year, Public Health England’s “Everybody Active Everyday” was published, which tried to take an “evidence based approach” and inspire radical change in “this green and sedent land” (to butcher Blake’s famous line).

More recently, in late 2015, the DCMS published “Sporting Future: A New Strategy for an Active Nation”. This contained a clear directive to merge sport with health and economic outcomes. And now we are presented with Sport England’s “Towards an Active Nation”. One might think with such an array of organisations and such a compendium of policy statements, the country would be on its way to health, wellbeing and fitness. Of course, I sincerely hope that change occurs. And it looks like the most recent policy offers some significant concrete solutions.

The images

To judge a policy by its cover and imagery, the most striking thing about the Towards an Active Nation is that it doesn’t look anything like a traditional “sport” strategy. The images include

– a couple of girls running in a forest

– a group of young people paddling on a misty lake

– a woman in a field with a rounders bat

– a couple of older adults playing badminton

– a young woman playing wheelchair basketball

– a coach with a young athlete at an athletics track

– a group of older women in an informal running group

– a group of young boys at an indoor climbing wall

– a group of young students being coached in football

– a young girl playing social tennis


There is very little imagery of competitive traditional sports. A traditionalist might ask Where is the cricket!? The rugby!? The Olympic athletes!? The role models!? The images make us imagine a nation with all manner of outdoor landscapes, with diverse participants enjoying non-adversarial, non-competitive activities. The pictures subtly move the reader away from the traditional English sports and towards a Scandinavian model of “sport”, a perceived utopia where traditional sport is just one aspect of an active life.

So how does this new policy aim to get there?

Well, there will be a massive restructure of funding. Pie charts on pages 16 and 17 are revealing. Two charts are presented, one of the previous funding allocation, and the projected investment. Confirming some of the pre-release rumours, it looks like NGBs will be sweating even more than they usually are, with their funding becoming even more contested.


The Words 

The core “outcomes” (or values) emphasised in the document are physical / mental wellbeing, individual, social, community and / or economic development. The policy appears unequivocal in how it will decide on funding. It can be boiled down to this quote:

“whether an organisation receives public funding should be based on what it can contribute to the outcomes …. not on its nature or structure. Put simply, it’s what you can do that counts, not who you are.” (p. 12, bold in original)

And so what changes might we expect in the sport sector? Well, key word searches are revealing. “Change” is mentioned 31 times, “New” – 72 times and “Funding” – 33 times. So the new change to the funding is based around organisations’ potential to achieve the “outcomes”. This will mean that organisations around the country will be auditing themselves to reflect on what they offer and how their offering could be attached to the outcomes.

Picking on one in particular, I suspect “economic development” has not been high on the list for most sport organisations, nor has it been emphasised in previous strategies. “Customer” is mentioned 32 times. And so I think business orientations and commercial incentives might become more important very soon. Sport England states:

WE WILL … Provide insight, advice and funding to those who deliver to regular players, focusing on customer needs and delivering excellent experiences.” (p. 27)

Maybe I have not kept up with the fluidity of language, but I can’t help but think of “customers” as a term which is a bit too business-like, a bit too corporate. A search of the old Sport England’s “Creating a Sporting Habit for Life” reveals zero instances of the word “customer”. So not only are sport organisations being reframed, so are people. What might the effects of this be I wonder? Time will tell!

Lastly, I see that the policy is guided by “behaviour change theory”. In a nutshell, this assumes people do not have a sporting habit for life. And so something which had been the catch-cry of Sport England for 5 years, will need to be unlearnt. Pragmatically, I wonder how difficult it is for people in an organisation to change the basic assumptions of their work. As Sport England note, this will require some change for the organisation as well. I wish them good luck!

Removing tackling from rugby in school PE?

The recent debate over tackling in school sport has been lively (and sometimes a little extreme).
I was one of the co-signatories of a letter calling for UK Commissioners, Ministers and educators to do more prevent injuries in children playing school rugby. One of the main proposals is to remove tackling from school PE rugby. [Note – I think future debates need a clearer distinction between voluntary school sport and compulsory PE sport]. I also think there is an opportunity to simply “deselect” rugby, rather than ban it. Schools deselect all types of sports for reasons of safety, cost, and lack of access, lack of qualified experts. This might temper some of the extreme reactions to a proposed “ban”.

It was great to see that the letter has generated significant media attention. Unless society questions accepted practices from time to time, we are all in trouble. And after hearing from people who want to keep the status quo, they do have a persuasive argument: “sport is good, and all sport has risk.”

But my sentiments lie specifically with school children who are obliged to partake in a sport that has an elevated risk compared to other school sports (I will say more on this later).  As such I am concerned about the school environment and the specific obligations of physical education teachers to protect children.

Many secondary schools in the United Kingdom deliver contact rugby as a compulsory part of the physical education curriculum from age eleven. It is incredible that in 2016, any school in this country would require children to play as part of physical education. Children and parents must be allowed to object because of safety concerns. 

Does rugby build character while it harms bodies?

Rugby players, coaches and fans imbue rugby with various life-changing qualities. One rugby coach on the news recently asked “how will children learn to tackle if they don’t learn when they are young?” My response would be that it is surely possible to live a fulfilled, happy life without tackling. There is nothing essential about tackle rugby.

I also heard a young rugby coach say the sport would be “neutered” without tackling, while a reporter asked if banning tackling was “nanny state”. Many people defend rugby by saying that it builds character. But then so do hundreds of other social activities which do not involve frequent head collisions. So, we should beware of emotive arguments that detract from the evidence. And the evidence is very concerning:

  • The risks of injuries for those aged under 18 years are high and injuries are often serious.
  • The majority of all injuries occur during contact or collision, such as the tackle and the scrum. These injuries which include fractures, ligamentous tears, dislocated shoulders, spinal injuries and head injuries can have short-term, life-long, and life-ending consequences for children.
  • Head injury and concussion is a common injury and repeat concussion is more likely when a player has a history of a previous concussion. A link has been found between repeat concussions and cognitive impairment and an association with depression, memory loss and diminished verbal abilities, as well as longer term problems.
  • Children take longer to recover to normal levels on measures of memory, reaction speed and post-concussive symptoms than adults.

As a policy researcher, we need to consider these negative effects and weigh them against reasons to play tackle rugby in PE at school. These include skill development, fitness, and teamwork. However, given that any number of other sports offer similar outcomes with less risk, and with more opportunity to engage different genders (which is something else which doesn’t occur as much as it could in UK PE), it is time to make some changes.

If a change is made to school PE rugby, some people think it is a slippery slope. A common question with any policy change is “What about other sports?” “What about football?” Well, consider that the United States Soccer Federation now has a policy banning under 11’s from heading the ball, and is reducing headers in training for 11 to 13 year olds. By aiming to reduce concussions, the USSF is acknowledging that brain health of children is more important than being able to hit a ball with their head.

And speaking of other sports, we know that the NFL (American Football) is interested in having a franchise in the UK. What might this expansionist vision mean for the UK. Well, the NFL is already trying to hook young British children on the sport. One NFL player who was in London for a game last year commented:

To see how far the NFL has spread and these kids respond, it’s awesome … I look forward to these opportunities and look forward to teaching these kids something I know. Hopefully, they catch on and like the game” ( Players, teams and governing bodies have a vested interest in as many people as possible playing and watching the sport. I accept that professional athletes battering each other in violent sports can be exciting (especially when New Zealand win). But we need to think “at what cost?” Do these sports destroy bodies as much as they build character? There are more and more stories emerging of retired elite players whose lives are blighted by long term injuries. As well as the scientific evidence, we should also listen to these stories more.

In conclusion, we do not need to be neuro-scientists to understand that our brains are precious, sensitive organs. Brains have not evolved to repeatedly receive violent impacts. Let’s make school PE a place where children might learn great things, not a place where they are at an increased risk of injury.

Incidentally, right now there is a review on health and safety in sport in the UK.