On 2-3 July 2018, over 60 key policy makers, practitioners and academics met to discuss, frame and shape the landscape of sport development at Hartpury University Centre in Gloucestershire supported by the United Kingdom Sport Development Network (UKSDN) partnered with ConnectSport. It is now over ten years since the network was founded.
The purpose of the two day conference was to revisit the founding principles of the collective, which has engaged over 1000 delegates in community sport development in ten years at multiple higher education institutional (HEI) settings. Sport Development is an HEI undergraduate course provided at over 50 universities, in over 130 derivatives of the course.
As the network now includes over twenty international collaborators and over 40 of the 50 providers of HEI sport development that have engaged with us, growth of the industry was not the theme of the conference. Instead, fiscal tightening, renewed focus on budgets, targets and performance of key agencies in this domain are drivers of our industry.
Sport for social development
The keynote presenter that opened proceedings was Professor Rosie Meek, an advocate for considering the role of sport in prisons and prisoner rehabilitation. Fresh from undertaking a government review of the role of sport, Rosie offered 12 key areas for improving prisons’ use of sport and physical activity. The clear parallels with wider social objectives were immediately apparent and alongside talks from The Alliance of Sport, Street Games and others working in this field we saw the powerful synergy of researchers and practitioners, and embraced Rosie’s ‘call to arms’ for new ways of collaborating, creating projects and collating information to develop evidence.
Numerous PhD students embedded within practice illustrated how the traditional PhD is increasingly available in more innovative practice-facing or even policy-led ways. This three-year model of sustained research that aims to understand, evolve project learning and draw upon and use theory to drive effective outcomes was apparent in diverse fields within the industry.
Research was favoured over ‘insight’, as a broader term that encompasses the PhD and market research surveys from private industry, through to advisory collaborations between HEIs and NGBs, CSPs and the third sector.
As more sports and physical activity organisations have non-executive directors (NEDs), there was a plea for more academics to be engaged by the industry in such roles, to make their expertise available to decision-makers.
Furthermore, the question was raised as to why there are still longstanding perceptions and stereotypes in sport of ‘the ivory tower academic’ that don’t exist in other vocational fields. Sport, and now physical activity, were considered alongside ‘evidence-based policy, which needs to be replaced with considerations of ‘intelligent policy’, according to Dr Haydyn Morgan from Gloucester University.
This was a theme of multiple other papers, including research by Emma Staples, who shared lessons of how to build, transform and challenge culture around LGBTI in cricket development.
Across the UK and Australia it is apparent that lesson learning is available. The question is whether there is capacity or indeed inclination from government to challenge the status quo – given the funding pressures and rapidly shifting agendas of community sport.
Evidence is essential
For too many community sport organisations, from the RFU through to England Golf and back again to micro initiatives within housing trusts, the NHS, workplaces and the voluntary sector, there remains a need to evidence ‘what works’. Perhaps, as many delegates commented and engagement on Twitter suggested, the time is right for allowing practice ‘experts’ to draw upon community sport researchers in HEIs to co-produce intelligent policy from the bottom up, rather than top down. In too many cases it was apparent that the pressure to ‘prove’, fulfil funding ‘evidence box ticking’ and show ‘effect’ is generating a new industry in sport management.
For some, perhaps this is the insight industry, while others note the growing body of expensive consultants and contracts in commissioned research. The Alliance of Sport, Connect Sport and other information and evidence ‘portals’ are superb examples of just where duplication of effort in austere times can be avoided.
The link with academia, peer reviewed research and information must be made stronger. This seems to be the gap.
The current obsession in HEIs driving towards the juggernaut of the Research Excellence Framework (REF) asks academics to focus on producing internationally renowned and ‘rated’ research papers. This sits a long way from the role of the public academic I value.
With an estimated 10,000 students and 500 academics across the UK, we have a key role to play in shaping agendas and supporting communities in developing knowledge about what works.
We see this as the start of a conversation with organisations, individuals and communities. Dropping in and collecting information to publish a paper that sits behind a university library firewall is not public knowledge engagement. We saw in our two days of conversations, just how powerful meaningful sport and physical activity research can be.