In terms of spectator sport, this summer might not have the buzz of last year’s Commonwealth Games but we’re still spoiled for choice. Wimbledon’s underway (come on, Andy!), the Tour de France is getting into gear and next month Beijing will host the World Athletics Championships at the famous Bird’s Nest Stadium.
Spectating is all very well, but what of that much-talked-about legacy the Glasgow Games promised? The event itself was spectacular, there’s no denying, and I’m sure it inspired many young people across Scotland to take up a new sport or devote more time to an existing passion.
Given our reputation for poor health, I’m excited by the idea of Scotland on a journey towards becoming a nation of active participants and not just spectators. But already there are warning lights on the dashboard and we should not ignore them.
A recent study of residents living near where the Games took place in Glasgow shows that levels of taking part in sport and exercise have dropped. There were of course benefits for local people in terms of sheer enjoyment of the spectacle and Games-related work opportunities, but it’s disappointing that the legacy appears to have hit the first hurdle. And it’s ironic to note the finding that access to local sports facilities was disrupted during the Games. I agree with Professor Ade Kearns, principal investigator on the study, who said there is a big job to be done.
The other warning light is the recent decision by Scottish Ministers to end funding for a scheme to improve the standard of swimming among primary school children.
The plug being pulled on Scottish Swimming’s Top Up programme is likely to mean greater numbers of adults who lack confidence in the water. Crucially, swimming is not a compulsory part of the curriculum in Scotland, unlike in England, and the provision of primary school swimming lessons varies extensively between local authorities. We know, for example, that children in the most deprived areas are more likely to be non-swimmers. Overall, between 30 and 40 per cent of children leave primary school unable to swim.
Ministers claim Scottish Swimming has received more than £5million over four years but this is a drop in the ocean when you consider that the Scottish health budget is over £12billion a year. Spending more on preventative measures to make activity a normal part of daily life will help reduce the pressure on the health service in the long run.
It’s not just a health issue and a life skill but it’s an issue of social justice. We know that financial pressures stop many families from going swimming. And because the provision of free swimming varies across Scotland, those living in poverty are excluded.
In the region I represent – Lothian – a single family swimming session can cost £8.65 in Musselburgh, £10.90 in Midlothian, £12.50 in Edinburgh and £13.70 in West Lothian. Start to add transport costs and kit onto that and you can see how unaffordable an option it becomes for low income households.
Among the recommendations made by Scottish Swimming and Save the Children to the Scottish Parliament’s Health Committee inquiry into community sport back in 2012 was continuation of the Top Up programme – the same one the government has now cut. They also called for investment in opportunities for children from deprived neighbourhoods, and an entitlement to learn to swim for all primary school children. They highlighted that some local authorities provide free transport during the school holidays for young people to get to leisure centres and swimming pools. We should be encouraging this approach right across Scotland.
Swimming has obvious health and safety benefits. It involves cardiovascular activity, which strengthens the heart and lungs, and helps with endurance, flexibility and balance. Drowning is a real risk for children. Scotland and the rest of UK rate among the worst countries in Europe for drowning prevention, according to the European Child Safety Alliance. Scotland only scores 1 out of 5 on water safety, with the ECSA highlighting the fact that we don’t have swimming lessons as a compulsory part of the school curriculum. 19 European countries including Sweden, Denmark, Norway and Finland have made swimming lessons compulsory. So often we look across the North Sea to our Scandinavian neighbours for inspiration on equality – why not on swimming?
Children who enjoy swimming have the option to pursue it as a competitive sport, with all the positive experiences that can bring, working towards goals, learning to be part of a team and developing confidence. It’s also been shown that swimming is good for children’s mental health, and families that spend time swimming together can develop strong bonds.
Last summer Sport Minister Shona Robison talked of giving every child the opportunity, facilities and support to learn to swim. And last summer Scots swimmers stood out, from Hannah Miley and Ross Murdoch to Michael Jamieson and the brilliant teenager Erraid Davies. For years the Scottish Government knew the Games were coming, and from early on talked about a legacy. It’s still possible to achieve it, and making swimming a compulsory part of the curriculum would show we’re serious.