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Can adopting a systems leadership approach support the leisure industry and the health of our workforce? - Jo Maher

16 March 2023

The leisure industry is the heart of the sporting pyramid, the key to unlocking the wellbeing of the nation, adding life to years. Its post-covid decline is something I believe we should all care about. As civic leaders, our duty is to serve our communities and the very best colleges adopt a whole person and holistic approach to this. I believe that colleges should act as anchor institutions. If one part of our local and public system is failing, then working to support it through systems leadership is not only the right thing to do, but benefits us all.

The current funding for the leisure industry is wholly inadequate and risks system failure, compounded by no relief for energy crisis support. In a speech in the House of Lords Tanni Grey-Thompson warned government that the UK’s health and wellbeing should be a “grave concern” and sector leaders have come together to request reclassification to “energy intensive” swimming pools to prevent the closure or reduced services of up to 74 per cent of swimming pools. Whilst a small amount of funding has been secured, this will not address the size of challenge and existing closures.

I asked Olympic champion swimmer Adam Peaty OBE and his coach Mel Marshall MBE for their views on why this is important for our communities and what the impact of swimming pool closures would be. Mel describes how “physical activity is attributed to being the solution to so many physical and mental health conditions, drastic support is needed to create more platforms and opportunities for us all to be physically active. Swimming is the best medicine for all! I say this having spent 30 years next to or in a swimming pool. The benefits of this activity are never ending. Pools are closing and the outlook for what was once an easily accessible opportunity is very bleak. More must be done to think differently as to how we keep pools open, keeping opportunities for all open. We need to think differently. Using educations resources to make this happen is such a positive opportunity to help then future be fitter healthier happier and more productive.”

Adam echoes Mel’s view that swimming pools support physical and mental wellbeing, challenges that all colleges around the country are trying to address, and he also describes the social benefits: “It’s a centre for the community to come together. I remember when I was growing up, I would see so many people that I wouldn’t see at school, or you’d see other people and different families. Not only from a learn to swim perspective, but also the activity days bring everyone together. It is crucial that every single community has access to a pool.”

“More needs to be done. If you look at other successful nations, they are not just so much healthier, but so much happier. Because they have the care they put into and the accessibility of these facilities. It is vital that over the next few years we support this. There is no point in having an Olympic legacy if there are no facilities to facilitate that.”

UK Active chair Mike Farrar has said the physical activity sector must be “at the heart” of the NHS, care system, education system and the workplace. UK Active have highlighted as a country we lose 43.8m days per year in absenteeism and presenteeism costing the economy £13.6bn (Economic Health and Societal Wellbeing: Quantifying the Impact of the Global Health and Fitness Sector, 2022). Furthermore, there are currently 20m people in the UK with a problem related to musculoskeletal conditions which can keep people out of work, or on waiting lists for treatment. Across FE, we are living through the most challenging staff recruitment and retention crisis I have seen in nearly 17 years in the sector, which goes back to my earlier point about systems leadership. The leisure industry supports the health and well-being of our staff and our students - and I believe there is more we can do to support it.

How can we do that?

In Leicestershire, Loughborough College was leading a Skills Development Fund pilot with Leicester College, North Warwickshire-South Leicestershire College, SMB Group, CIMSPA and Active Together. The SDF was designed to support the leisure industry and enhance physical activity and well-being to support post-covid recovery and to develop the curriculum. In addition, CIMSPA, in its role as professional development body for the sport and physical activity sector, have developed a workforce strategy for England, heavily influenced by the work of the SDF group. This has resulted in funding from Sport England, to fund Skills Hub Manager roles in each region. It would be great to see colleges in every region supporting the next phase of this work.

AoC Sport recently launched its new strategic plan with a mission around “Active Students, Healthier Colleges”. A core strategic priority is to grow participation and increase access to sport and physical activity in colleges. This creates the platform to leverage our college systems to better promote being physically active. The more colleges get involved in the wider student engagement work that AoC Sport deliver on, the greater our collective impact.

If as leaders we play our part in improving physical activity, then I believe we can create a movement of more physically active staff and students, who in turn will be increasingly likely to use the leisure industry and their services. That will help to drive leisure industry revenues and sustain its staff base. That staff base will then need colleges to train and support them, enhancing college funding. Our staff become healthier and present in the best possible way, and we might just be able to save some swimming pools along the way if we support the campaign. Last week, I attended a seminar and David Russell described a “joy loop” in systems thinking, where one positive action creates another positive action. Joy loops are exactly what our sector and the leisure industry need right now… and the movement starts here.

The views expressed in Think Further publications do not necessarily reflect those of AoC or NCFE.