Game Changer: A plan to transform young lives through sport

Sport has the power to transform lives. Of course, it keeps us fit. But so much more. For the young people of this nation, sport unlocks life-long friends, introduces mentors, provides purpose, builds confidence – and keeps us out of trouble.1 It boosts academic prospects, combats mental ill health, and gets us ready for the world of work.2

The evidence is resounding: sport is more than a game. Yet for too long, the power of sport has been underappreciated, particularly the role it can play in both reducing crime and protecting young people from it.3 In this report, we propose a new plan to put this right – and transform young lives through sport.

In recent years, young people have fallen to the bottom of the political agenda. Chronic underinvestment in youth services, diminishing extracurricular opportunities and dwindling activity levels have coincided with rising levels of youth violence, a spiralling mental health crisis and growing discontent.

Original polling for the CSJ reveals that while almost half of parents say their children have been victims of antisocial behaviour, barely a third think that young people have access to enough opportunities, like sports clubs, in their local areas.

Sport interventions have been found to reduce offending by 52 per cent, significantly cutting violent crime.4 And yet a third of children today are inactive, that is, doing less than 30 minutes of exercise per day.5 One in five primary and secondary pupils do no extracurricular activities at all in an average week, rising to one in four pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds.6 Still, the UK lags behind its OECD counterparts, with activity levels lower than Finland, Ireland, Austria, Hungary, Spain and the EU average.8

It is no wonder that our young people are fed up, disenchanted and disempowered. They include the so-called ‘ghost children’ of lockdown who, absent from school and without urgent re-engagement, will graduate into a post-pandemic world for which they are grossly underprepared, three times more likely to offend by aged 17.

And yet, our research shows that far from abandoning them to this fate, now is the time to double down on our commitment to the next generation. After the damage inflicted by successive lockdowns, we owe it to our young people to offer them the brightest possible future.

We believe that sport holds the key to this. In a nation famous for inventing many of the world’s favourite sports, how can it be that Premier League footballers are bought and sold for tens of millions of pounds while local authorities spend an average of just £156 per young person?9 Why is it that a nation that can proudly host elite international sporting events to the tune of £9 billion allow its own, local, facilities, clubs and youth centres to fall into disrepair?10

The resulting imbalance is evident not only in the ‘activity gap’, where children from affluent families outperform their disadvantaged peers,11 but also academically and socially too.

We welcome the ambitions set out in the Government’s recently published Get Active Strategy. However, we now need a clear, strategic national plan delivering on those ambitions—especially for disadvantaged children and young people. This report sets out clearly how this can be achieved across government policy areas including criminal justice, education, family, local communities, health, skills and employment.

Efforts to widen access to out of school activities through the National Youth Guarantee are a step in the right direction. Nevertheless, in both cases we have taken evidence suggesting that funds are not being used to full effect, with low levels of accountability and cash leaking into different programmes.

Meanwhile, the potential to leverage the immense private wealth, philanthropic appetite, and new innovation surrounding youth sport is left largely untapped. Charities such as OnSide are harnessing private philanthropy to significantly increase the supply of first-class youth infrastructure.12 The Nick Maughan Foundation has supported the roll out of the innovative BoxWise programme at 42 venues across the UK, including in partnership with the youth homeless charity Centrepoint.

And brands including Nike and Adidas have led innovative schemes, matching employee donations to their impact funds and collaborating with Premier League Football Clubs to address issues including knife crime. Yet, all too often, Government has missed opportunities to innovate sustainable and effective funding streams for sports. Opportunities to develop Social Outcomes Contracts, partnerships and match funding have repeatedly been missed.

This report calls for an entirely new approach, bringing together government, schools, sport governing bodies, community organisations and philanthropists to widen sporting opportunities for all young people.

  1. Centre for Social Justice, 2021. “A level playing field: why we need a new school enrichment guarantee and how to deliver it”
  2. Ibid
  3. Youth Endowment Fund, 2023. “Do sports and positive activities help to prevent violence?”
  4. Youth Endowment Fund, 2021. “Sports Programmes: Toolkit technical report”
  5. Sport England, 2022.“Active Lives Children and Young People Survey”
  6. Centre for Social Justice, 2021.“A level playing field: why we need a new school enrichment guarantee and how to deliver it”
  7. OECD, 2020. “Physical activity among children and adolescents”
  8. Centre for Social Justice, 2023. “School absence risks tidal wave of youth crime, CSJ analysis reveals”
  9. National Youth Agency, 2021. “Time’s running out: Youth services under threat and lost opportunities for young people”
  10. BBC, 2013. “London 2012: UK public says £9bn Olympics worth it”
  11. Sport England, 2022. “Active Lives Children and Young People Survey Academic year 2021-22”
  12. Onside, 2023. “Here for young people: Annual review 2021/22”

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