Select Committee on Culture, Media and Sport Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by Professor John McClatchley


  I was very interested to learn of the public evidence session on the Sport of Swimming being held by your Committee.

  My involvement in swimming has been both as a international level competitor at both swimming and water polo and as a parent of competitive swimmers. As a competitor I went to both the Commonwealth Games (swimming) and the European Championships (water polo) and I will play club level water polo and compete in Masters swimming competitions. As a parent I have two daughters who are both keen swimmers and my elder daughter has reached a sufficient level to be in receipt of a small Scottish Sports Aid Foundation grant as a member of National Squad (Scottish Youth Squad).

  I believe that swimming can be split into four categories which are general leisure swimming, school swimming (and learning to swim), exercise swimming and competitive swimming. In the UK, leisure swimming is well catered for and both local authorities and private operators provide leisure pools.

  Unfortunately the other categories of swimming are generally provided with a much lower level of support.

  In the case of school swimming, some schools have their own pools and some local authorities offer time in their pools. However, many school pools are expensive to operate and often have water quality and maintenance problems as there are insufficient resources to support the staff trained to operate pools nor to fully fund the other operating costs. My children's swimming club frequently has to cancel training sessions due to maintenance problems at pools, and even when pools are available some sessions have to be abandoned due to poor water quality.

  Local Authority schools simply do not have sufficient resources to employ the specialist staff to operate swimming pools and promoting excellence in school swimming is an unrealistic target as again there are insufficient resources to employ the necessary high quality coaching staff.

  In addition, local authorities have to provide multi-use facilities and this greatly increases the costs of building any 50 metre pools. Pools such as that at Bath University and at Millfield School had much lower build costs (of the order of £3 to £4 million, as compared to the new pool at Manchester which cost close to £19 million, and even the new 25 metre pool at Cambridge cost close to £10 million. Investment in 50 metre pools at universities would therefore appear to be a much cheaper route to providing 50 metre pools in the UK.

  The UK is fortunate in that there are many excellent swimming clubs across the country and what is really needed is a strategic steer to shift swimming from within the school days (where it presents problems for schools) to an after school activity involving those swimming clubs. This would allow intensive swimming classes over a period of a few weeks, which are more effective than short sessions once a week within the school day. The involvement of the clubs would facilitate the development of excellence by providing the coaching input that schools cannot provide.

  If this approach is to work it would need schools to close their pools and for new high quality facilities to be built which can be shared by groups of schools.

  High quality facilities in a town would also encourage the promotion of exercise swimming to build healthier lifestyles (swimming is one of the very best forms of exercise as it is aerobic, almost injury free and can involve all ages). At present exercise swimming is sometimes available in the early morning (not suitable for everyone) or a couple of lanes are offered within a public session often at lunchtime (again not suitable for everyone). The lane swimming is uncontrolled and no guidance is offered to swimmers to help them get the best from their exercise.

  Lane swimming in public sessions is often limited to early mornings and there is no guidance or instructions to the public given about how to get the best from such exercise. As swimming is excellent exercise and has major health benefits, this failure to provide sufficient exercise swimming sessions also reduces the opportunities for improving the health of the population.

  It is also of note that young swimmers are often put off continuing with swimming as pool time for competitive clubs is limited and a large proportion of the training therefore has to be in the early morning. This can typically mean a 5.30am start requiring that swimmers get up at 4.45am or even earlier. Thus promoting competitive swimming is severely constrained by availability of facilities.

  The large clubs with professional coaching staff, who are best able to develop excellence, face the same problems and being large have an even greater demand for high quality water time which is generally not available.

  All of this highlights that facilities in most of the country are inadequate for the promotion of both exercise swimming for the community and for the promotion of competitive swimming.

  The costs of developing high quality facilities across the whole of the country would make unrealistic demands on local authority, school and Lottery funds. However, there is a model that has led to great success at Olympic Games and which could be implemented in the UK by some targeted capital investment.

  In the USA, much of the development of competitive swimming at a high level is through universities. The universities have built high quality facilities (which are often available to local swimming clubs) and they fund coaching and sports science staff to support the swimmers. Top-level swimmers receive scholarships to study at the universities and this approach has the advantage that swimmers gain educational qualifications to help their careers after they stop competing at the highest level. An additional strength of the US model is that there are high level inter-university competitions which provides an extra competitive edge to those swimmers.

  The Australian Institute of Sport also recognises the importance of linking education with the development of excellence in sport, something that one of the Institute's swimming coaches confirmed to me in a recent e-mail correspondence. I cannot comment on other sports, but this systematic link of top-level training and education is not being done in the UK with regard to swimming with the exception of Loughborough University where all their swimmers are students at the university.

  For example, I know of one swimmer who had been given elite funding but did not get onto the 2000 Olympic team. The funding was then withdrawn and the swimmer was left with effectively nothing to show for that investment. The swimmer had been unable to enrol on a university course as there was no real support to help swimmers do that. What is needed is a link between the swimming club/elite squad and a university or FE College (preferably with both) and for there to be a Sports Bursary scheme in place. With such an arrangement it may even have been possible to reduce the size of the Lottery grant to the swimmer and therefore such a scheme could offer the possibility of increasing the number of individual grants that could be funded.

  The crucial question is whether it is possible to establish a US model in the UK.

  That US model requires a capital investment in facilities plus annual operating costs to pay for coaches, sports science support and sports bursaries.

  With careful targeted capital investment it should be possible to fund the construction of a number of 50 metre swimming pools at universities across the country. Unlike local authority pools which have to cater for leisure use as well as exercise and competitive swimming, these pools would be designed to support lane and competitive swimming and this will help keep the construction and operating costs below a multi-use local authority leisure pool.

  It is also crucial that the investment is not just into the pre-1992 universities, who may be better placed to provide their own capital investment (due to their historically higher funding levels), as that would limit the degree level educational opportunities to students with high A-level grades. The post-1992 universities and university colleges have also done most to meet government targets for expanding number of students in higher education.

  Such a development would need to be built on a partnership between the relatively few large swimming clubs that employ full-time professional coaches, the universities and further education colleges and local authorities. The swimming clubs would provide the coaching input which the universities would be unlikely to fund, while the universities would provide sports science support (the sport science department would benefit in terms of research and input into the academic teaching programmes). The further education colleges' involvement is important to ensure that all levels of education are available for swimmers and local authorities need to be involved to link with schools and to ensure that the community use for exercise swimming at the university facilities complements the local authority provision.

  Such a partnership arrangement would provide exceptional value for money as the coaching and sports science would already be in place. The opening of high quality facilities would also encourage more young people to become involved in the sport and by working with the local authorities, there could be benefits to schools and most certainly in helping improve health by encouraging adults to take up exercise swimming.

  The construction of 10-15 such swimming pools at universities would also help address the major shortage of 50 metre pools in the UK. Currently only two 50 metre pools meet modern competition standards of ten lane, deck level, 25 metre wide pools (Tollcross and Sheffield). The new Commonwealth pool in Manchester only has eight lanes and the other most recently built 50 metre pool (Norwich) also only has eight lanes but is too narrow for international level competition at just 17 metre wide (instead of over 21 metre).

  An illustration of the paucity of 50 metre pools in the UK, is that in Australia, greater Canberra with a population of around 300,000 has three indoor 50 metre pools (that is for a population smaller than Coventry or about the same size as Northampton and its surrounding villages). Another example is that in France, greater Paris has more 50 metre pools than the whole of England.

  It is perhaps of note that if London ever wished to hold the Olympic Games, not only would it need a main competition pool, but there would be additional pools required for the water polo preliminary competitions. In addition there would be an expectation that there would be 50 metre pools available for pre-Olympic training for visiting national teams. A London bid for the Olympic Games would be enhanced if it could be shown that there was an investment programme to develop those 50 metre pools around the country to ensure they were in place for the Olympic Games.

  What I have outlined is a model for developing swimming in the UK that would allow the development of a US style model with exceptional value-for-money. Much of the operating costs for coaching and sports science is already in place but without the facilities it is impossible to build on this existing investment. Importantly, although my interest is in the sport of swimming, I believe this model could also be applied to many other sports.

  The Culture, Media and Sport Committee would send a very strong message to universities, local authorities and swimming clubs and potential sponsors if it promoted this model. In addition, it may well be that with a strong endorsement from the Committee, sponsors may be more willing to support new developments that fit this model.

  Finally may I commend the Committee's interest in the sport of swimming which I believe is one of the best forms of exercise for all ages and which, with targeted investment could have much more consistent success in major competition.

26 November 2001

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