Transcript: The role of sport in communities in Scotland

Michael McEwan speaks to David Ferguson, Executive Director of the Observatory about the work it does to support participation in sport across Scotland

Podcast Episode: The role of sport in communities in Scotland

Category: Disability 



What follows is a transcription of the audio recording. Due to differences between spoken and written English, the transcript may contain quirks of grammar and syntax.

MM - Michael McEwan
DF - David Ferguson

On this next podcast for Iriss, I went to speak to David Ferguson. David is one of the executive Directors at The Observatory for Sport in Scotland. They do a lot of research into sport and disability sport in Scotland.

MM So, David can you tell us a bit about your work, just give us an overview of what you do?

DF Yes Michael, The Observatory for Sport in Scotland was started in 2016 in response to the decline in sport participation. So, we’re talking about community sport, so sport as it affects everybody, all ages, all abilities from very young children right up to older people and what we found that there are no real clear national strategies in Scotland that have everybody part of the same system in Scotland, it tends to be locally led in terms of what people do in sport and leisure, what’s available to people so in terms of where the facilities are and what’s open, what’s not. And what had been found by the people who founded the OSS, Charlie Raeburn was our founder, he’s a former PE advisor and he was concerned that there was lots of research and evidence but it wasn’t being used properly to help to inform policy and he looked around the world at where things were being used much better. So, the likes of Scandinavia, the Scandinavian countries, the Netherlands, they’ve all addressed the real problems they’ve got with growing obesity, with childhood obesity and adult obesity, there’ve been big problems in those countries the same as they have here, and in America and elsewhere. They were addressing the problem of physical inactivity, so lots more people doing less every week and they grew concerned by that by using research and evidence around sport. So, they looked into it in real detail with a bit of a scientific approach to work out exactly what the problems were, why the problems were developing or existed, what the barriers were to taking part in sport now for people in the 21st century. And obviously that showed a number of things that we maybe they would have known already, and we would have known and underlined those but it also flagged up a number of new things that people hadn’t really thought of and it provided a picture of how sport in communities had declined over the last 20/30 years. So, Charlie brought together a number of people in Scotland to say, we need to do that in Scotland. So, he created this observatory for sport in Scotland, lots of different people coming together from universities, researchers across Europe got involved with this as well, so we have board members from Denmark and from the Netherlands. And I came in 2 years ago, my background, as you know Michael, is as a journalist, a sports journalist for the last 20 odd years and I got involved with this because it’s something really close to my heart. I’ve been conscious as a coach, an administrator in sport, I’ve been involved in lots of different sports over my time as a volunteer and I was concerned as well about the fact that we have got children from sort of 11/12 years old now dropping out of sport, quite commonly, across Scotland and I wasn’t surprised to learn from the research, when I got involved with OSS, that the research tells us now about 50% of the country are not engaged in any kind of sport and that’s monthly. So, that’s not just every week, the question that’s asked is, have you done any sport in the last month and we’re talking all kinds of sport here. And what we’re finding is that more and more people, perhaps from wealthier backgrounds are doing more so, they’re going to the gym more, cycling a bit more, but obviously there’s a correlation to that if the figures being saying the same for the last 20 years around the 53% mark, obviously somewhere some people are not doing as much and that’s what we found was that in deprived areas, with disabled people, people with disabilities, older people, more and more children and teenagers were not getting the same access to sport activity in their communities that they used to get. And so that’s what our focus has been, we’re really addressing that area, looking to build research and evidence around why that is and how we change that. So, the important thing is we’re looking forward, we’re looking at solutions, we actually have more children up to the age of 10 taking part in sport, all ages, across 0 to 10, and abilities than we’ve ever had so actually there’s something really positive there. Our problem is that we’re up with the Demarks and the Netherlands until the age of 10 and then we slide right down to about the bottom of the charts over the next 10 years from 11 years old to 20 so, that’s what we want to address and that’s what we want to change and that’s what we’re really focussed on.

MM We’ll speak about some of the research that you’re doing in a minute David, but I wanted to ask you if your research hit a buffer at the moment because of the Coronavirus? I mean, have you started to do work, say last year but because of the pandemic you had to stop what you are doing at the moment?

DF We have had to hold back of some things because we like to be independent, it was set us as an independent organisation, so we rely on a lot of different funders so, Philanthropy, Trust and Foundations and some companies support us who are all passionate about wanting to see sport being available for every person in society and obviously with what they’ve been through over the past year, with money becoming really tight, we’ve lost a number of funders there so, we had to work really hard over the last year to bring new funders on board and that did impact on some of our research, we’re not able to grow as much as we maybe wanted to but in saying that we have still developed lots of different research. We published last year research around inequalities in sport which highlighted how poverty was actually now the biggest barrier to sport for many people in Scotland and we’ve had a number of discussions and workshops around how you improve that and we’re working with sports bodies and sport clubs and sport organisations in communities to look at how they address that because I think many people in sport didn’t realise that poverty was such a big challenge for them, big issue. We’re working with Scottish Women in Sport with Maureen McGonigle and the team on looking at roles for women in sport and how women manage to work their way up through sport and where they are and how that’s changing. We’ve looked at aging, sport and aging, healthy aging and how we can improve the lives of older people so that they’re not just living for longer but they’re living healthier for longer. And we’re working with a housing association called Blackwood Homes, looking at a number of different housing areas in Scotland that they work in, and they operate in to see how we can improve the health and wellbeing of older people through using different elements of sports so, as I said earlier, Michael, when we talk about sport, it’s the wide gamete of sport so it’s just movement for a lot of people, just play for some people and just coming together and having some kind of physical activity but it goes very wide so there’s lots of different things we’re still doing and we will be stepping it up again in 2021, we will be motoring on again. We’ve had a few changes within the organisation, we have a new chairman in, Geoff Aberdein, who comes from a political background, working with Scottish government and Aberdeen Asset Management, Aberdeen Standard Investments as well round the world and Shelley Kerr, of course the former Scotland Women’s National coach who has now joined our board. Both of them are on the board and we’ll have some new faces, coming to us in 2021 as well, down the road, and so it’s getting quite exciting. We’ve got lots of people coming to us now and wanting to be involved and help us drive this change so, there’s plenty certainly on the horizon.

MM And of course, Shelley Kerr’s a big name not only because she’s a female but she did well with the Scotland National team when they went to the world cup a few years ago.

DF She’s passionate about community sport as well so, I have good discussions with some of the national coaches, Gregor Townsend in Rugby and Shelley, and others across the sports about one of the problems of course being that in rugby for example, they’ve got more and more guys coming in from South Africa and other places around the world because they feel that we don’t have the players here so they’re having to find them. Now the reality is that we still produce great talent in Scotland in all sports, the problem however is if they’re dropping out of sport at 11 years old, in greater numbers as has been the case, the last 10/20 years across Scotland, then we don’t have the quantity. So, if you come through the system in Scotland, the system can be pretty good, the pathways, the development can be good but if we’ve only got 100 people coming through that system, 100 children, whatever sport it is, compared to 10,000 children coming through the system in England or France or wherever then obviously our systems, it’s going to be easier to get to an under 18 cap in Scotland than it will be elsewhere and we won’t be as developed and battle hardened and resilient perhaps in our sport as they would be in those because you’ve had to work harder to get to that level. Now we’ve got some great talent, we’ve got plenty of kids coming through, as I said earlier, we’ve got as many children playing up to the age of 10 as anywhere in Europe but if we don’t improve that quantity again in the team levels then we’re not going to be able to improve the quality that comes into the senior game whatever sport that is, so we have those discussions with Shelley and others but at the end of the day for us, they focus is on that it’s building that raw material, building those opportunities and the numbers across the teen years so that more and more people are involved in sport, we have benefits in health and wellbeing, we have benefits in education, we have benefits in social cohesion, people being together and what the research tells us, Michael, is if you’ve been involved in sport in your teen years, you’re more likely to come back to sport later on so, you might go to work, you might drift away from sport but you’re more likely to come back to it, you’ll have the confidence, the levels already established and the skills to be able to come back and give it a go, whatever sport that is. If you haven’t been involved through your teen years, you’re less likely to come back, so obviously there are huge benefits later in life for older people and others if we can get them engaged in activity.

MM I wanted to speak to you about the research, as I said, about disability and dementia. I’ll come back to speak about that in a minute but you were saying that it’s all aspects of sport. So, does that take into consideration that if people are an unemployed person to disabled people to people with dementia that they want to access sport but they can’t afford to go into their local sports centre. Does your research look into that as well?

DF Yes, very much so and that’s a key focus of our work in 2021 because we’re very concerned at the fact that leisure centres, many have had to close so, through 2020, through Covid and many are talking about not being able to reopen because of the costs. Now, I am aware of the leisure centre industry, the leisure trust sector and we’ve seen research over the last 20 years that’s showing that investment in local sport, leisure and recreation through local authorities and leisure trust, investment to them has reduced every year for the last 15/16 years so, they’ve been put in a difficult position where they want to help everyone in society but they’re more reliant on commercial income. So, they’re being told, you can run your services but you have to do that off what you bring in. So, as a result we’ve seen fees rising, membership fees, rental fees, hire fees, catering fees, all these things have been rising and that’s been really difficult. Now, the leisure trust do a fantastic job but what we’re seeing is they’re in a really difficult position and it can’t continue so, we’ve had Glasgow life and others saying to me, it’s unsustainable, we can’t keep this going. And so, we need to find a new model and that’s one of the things we’re looking at because you’re right Michael, looking back over the last 20 years, a key reason for more and more people not getting access has been linked to research we’ve done on poverty, has been the cost of accessing facilities. So, many people used to play in the streets, playgrounds round about them, that doesn’t happen anymore, you have to be able to afford to go to a leisure centre, you have to have parents, perhaps, able to take you there and that’s not always easy and particularly when you throw in disabilities, it creates other barriers now what we’ve found, we’ve been doing some work with Scottish Disability Scotland so, we’re going to improve that and enlarge that work so, you’re right you touched on disability work. We’re doing a lot with Scottish Disability Sport, we’re doing a lot with them in 2021, looking at barriers to people with disabilities. So, 20% of the population in Scotland have a disability, registered with a disability. And while I mentioned earlier that the participation in sport figures show that the general population is around 53% mark for people with disabilities it’s around the 30% mark so of that 20% only about 30% reckon they’re getting any regular activity, so monthly activity. Now, we can do much better than that in Scotland and you know it’s about moving the barriers, identifying them and removing them and that’s what we’re doing: OSS, that’s what we’re about. The Observatory, it’s about bringing the scientific knowledge to identifying what the problems are and helping to remove them and we’re getting really good support from right across the disability network so we had over 40 organisations involved in our disability sport review paper that we did in 2020 where we were looking at what all the key problems are and where the knowledge gaps are and we’re going to work with them throughout so, a lot of those organisations are across the whole of the UK but we’re bringing in understanding and learning from across Europe actually. There’s been a number of disability sport research projects carried out across Europe over the last few years and we’re working on one at the moment that were involved with different countries and so yeah, I mean it’s really important for us, that’s what we’re about. We’re not particularly concerned with people who are doing lots of sport during the week and giving them more sport, we’re not particularly concerned with improving sport for sport’s sake, what we’re about is being able to use sport to improve lives in Scotland so, it’s about being able to enable people whether they’re involved in sport or not to be able to get access to sport because we know the physical and mental health and well being benefits, the social cohesion benefits you know. And you and I know Michael, we’ve spoken about it before, that we don’t really play sport because we want to be great at sport, we play sport because we want to be with our friends and we want to have a laugh and we want to get out and if we can get a bit of physical activity at the same time, great, we know we’re then looking after our bodies a bit. So, that’s what it’s about, how do we enable more people to come together and use sport to improve their physical and mental health and well being and improve communities in Scotland.

MM I think that was one of our questions, I wanted to ask you about, the research when it comes to the disability kids, you know I’ve got a passion for disability sport and disability overall but would you say that what’s stopping people from participating in disability sport is a lack of confidence, just to get out the house or is it to meet new people but they haven’t had the chance to do that before?

DF Yeah, they’re both reasons and you know these are coming out, these are coming through in the research that we’re doing. Lack of confidence, the lack of ability, the concerns that of course, you’re going into groups that you’ve not been involved with before but what we’re finding as the greatest barrier is just the lack of opportunity in Scotland. So, in other countries, in the Netherlands for example, they brought in a national sports agreement, just a few years ago, where every local authority area: so, they’ve got 380 municipalities, every one of them signed up to the national sport agreement where they would make facilities available and opportunities available at low cost for everyone in their community to improve physical and mental health and wellbeing. So, it was seen as a way to improve the nation’s health. And they have not reduced any funding in that area over the last 15 years because of the benefit, because the research shows that actually it’s having a significant benefit in the health of people. So, that’s what we’re looking at in Scotland, is how we could do something so we get everybody on the same page. It’s not a postcode lottery depending where you live, that determines whether you’ve got any access or not. Obviously with disabilities, there are different elements to take into account in terms of social integration and bringing people together but we should not accept that if you have a disability, you can not be actively involved in regular sport in your community. We shouldn’t accept it as the case that we have at the moment where people have to travel some distance. We’ve talked about some great clubs, Red Star clubs, Michael, it’s a fantastic … and Ian Mirfin done a fantastic job there with the club and many people around about him but we should have these clubs available in every part of Scotland. Every Scottish Disability sport region should have facilities locally where they can integrate. And when we’re talking about integrating, it’s not about a club creating a disabled club on a Tuesday night, it’s about people with disabilities being part of that club, that football club, that rugby club, that tennis club, that golf club and they’re part of what’s going on and sport thinks about itself in those terms so, it makes sure it is thinking about making sure the club and the activity is accessible for everybody in the community. Now, in the Netherlands where I went last year, a year or so ago, to have a look, they did that really well but it came from the top. It came from the government saying, you must open your doors to everybody, if you do that, we will help fund you. If you don’t, then carry on, you’re on your own. Fund yourself privately and be a private club but if you open your doors, we will fund you. And the response to that was fantastic across the Netherlands, you had clubs all over starting to open up much more and become much genuinely inclusive, integrated clubs. And I’m really excited about that because I think we can do that here as well.

MM Final question from me David because you know that I could speak about sport all day and you can as well but I wanted to ask you about the research you’re doing about dementia and I suppose it’s along the same lines as disability sport in a way but dementia sport is really a bit different because people will want to get back into sport but they actually forget how to do sport when it comes to football or golf. I mean there’s a big movement at the moment in football where they’ve got the … is it the Scottish Memories Football league? Where it’s designed for people with dementia as well, can you just give us a quick overview of what you’re doing with that?

DF Yeah, we’ve been working with Sporting Memories Scotland, Sporting Memories UK and Age Scotland so, they’re a couple of partners who came to us last year, we got in touch with a year or so ago and they came to our summit, we had the national sport summit in Edinburgh last year, in 2019, and we’ve had good discussions with them about how we can help older people be more involved in sport and one of the interesting, worrying statistics we saw in some research was that we’re seeing more early onset dementia in Scotland and it’s common around the world and round UK but where you can bring people together to talk about things and be involved in groups, there is the potential to help people with dementia and obviously and delay that onset because they’re using their minds, there’s cognitive function going on there in talking about things when they’re together. Now, you’ll be aware, we talked about it before Michael, the Sporting Memories project and many other smaller examples and other spin offs there are across Scotland where sports clubs are bringing people together just to talk about sport and it’s fantastic, I’ve been involved in some of these groups and I’m amazed at watching people who don’t know what they were doing earlier on today or yesterday, able to talk quite openly about games they remember attending when they were younger, sport they took part in, they know all the details, they can tell you everything about who scored, what they enjoyed being there, getting the pie at half time, whatever it was, it brings them alive and I went along to one where we started looking at photographs and they were picking themselves out as players. Now, other people in their community didn’t realise, they may have played for the local club or they played for Scotland. Some people are sitting there very quiet and then say, well that’s me, that was me when I played for Scotland. And people are saying, what, I never knew you played for Scotland and the challenges there of people with dementia who because of illness and also because of the lack of confidence and the confidence lost they get through it, it makes them retreat into themselves and often they won’t talk as much so the Sporting Memories and other projects like it are great for bringing people out of themselves and allowing them to engage again. So, it goes back to what I was saying, it’s not necessarily about doing sport for the sake of it it’s about using sport just as a tool to help people come together and improve their health and whether that’s physical or mental and we’re looking at lots of different aspects of older people’s health. You know, we’ve got a booming older population occurring at the moment and over the next 10 years and I’m pretty sure that will continue even with the sad losses we’ve had through Covid, so we have a duty to look after older people but there’s a role there to allow older people to look after themselves better and to do that, allowing them to have opportunities to play with each other, I use play in a general sense, to do sport with each other, to talk about things, to come together, men and women. We’ve seen it in other countries, it’s very powerful, senior sport is what they call it in Denmark and a lot of them I spoke to when I was across in Denmark, say we just come together for the coffee but they come and they play a wee game, they play a little bit of bowls, or they play a little bit of different types of games, some of them are board games, whatever. That’s what we want to encourage, so we’re looking into that as well, Michael, around how we can help older people just be more active and ultimately it keeps them out of hospital, it helps their balance, they don’t fall so much, and it can help save a lot of money in the NHS as well.

MM Okay, well thanks for your time David, that was very interesting.

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