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24 Aug 2021 | 14:14

Prof Fred CoalterAs part of its policy initiative on sport and employability, the Coalition is highlighting how members use sport-themed approaches to address the challenges and barriers that young people face in a post-Covid landscape. Here we speak to Professor Fred Coalter, co-author of the EU-funded  ‘Monitoring and Evaluation Manual for Sport for Employability Programmes’ (MONITOR) supported by Coalition members Street League and Sport 4 Life, about the need for improved systematic approaches across the sector. 

Hi Fred, thanks for speaking to us. The MONITOR Manual states that “sport and employability programmes rarely rely solely on sport”. Can you expand on this, and what are some of the pros and cons of using sport? 

I've worked in sport for development for 25 years across the world, and I've never worked with an organisation that was just a sports programme. We argue in the Manual that sport on its own will only make a limited contribution to developing aspects of employability, especially if it's simply left to the supposed inherent properties of sport. People need to be made aware of what they are learning and its wider relevance. There has to be some degree of reflection in these programmes which talks to people about ‘What do you think you've just learned? And why do you think it’s relevant?’ 

Sport England image

In the Manual we outline three approaches (Plus Sport, Sport Plus 1 and Sport Plus 2). In all of these sport is used as an experiential learning context, but its role and importance varies in each approach. In Plus Sport, sport is used as a ‘flypaper’ - an attraction; of course participants may learn something, but there's no systematic attempt to use it for experiential learning and learning occurs in parallel workshops and activities. In Sport Plus 1, people do learn general skills such as teamwork, communication, conflict management, but to address the issues of employability, there is a need  to have workshops which systematically address the issues of employability. In Sport Plus 1 these components run in parallel, with no systematic relationship between the two components. 

Sport Plus 2 is based on a fully-integrated curriculum; you run workshops and you design the sports programme to emphasise and reinforce the content of the workshops. For example, with one programme that I looked at they had a workshop on interviewing technique, and then had a dance session, which was constructed around presentation of self, listening to instructions, doing what you're asked to do and presenting yourself.


This approach to experiential learning is probably more suited to those who have failed in the formal curriculum; people who come to these employability projects and may not be good at sitting and listening to workshops. But a fully-integrated programme, which allows them to see the value of what they get in the workshops, maybe more useful for those who feel less confident in workshops. You always have to think about the way your programme has been received and perceived by participants. 

In terms of the most successful programmes that I've looked at, they have a fully-integrated curriculum where the sport reflects and reinforces the workshop content. Everything the young people do in the programme, they recognise its relevance to employability and it is emphasised at all points. They are asked about what they have learned and the relevance of it; there is a constant attempt in this programme to get people to reflect on themselves, their own skills and their own development, which contributes to their maturation processes. 

The second point about sport is whether you adopt a competitive  or a mastery approach. In the Manual, we argue that an overly competitive approach is possibly deleterious as it implies possibly negative comparisons and experience of failure. Consequently, we argue for a mastery orientation which emphasises control, develops personal skills and avoids negative comparisons. In the Manual, we emphasise the importance of the early development of perceived self-efficacy; you have to construct the programme so that very early on, the young people have a sense of achievement and improvement. If you develop or strengthen perceived self-efficacy, you develop their ability and confidence to learn more complicated things as the programme develops. Designing the programmes to provide early experiences of success and non-failure are really important - I think mastery-oriented sport is a good environment for that.  

Too often in the past, sport for development has been accused of failing to ‘speak outside its own bubble’, and to a broader audience. With the Coalition’s first objective within this initiative being to influence and work with key actors and policy-makers within the employability sector, and respond to specific policy asks being made, what would be your advice? 

I think the problem is that sport can be viewed as too simple a solution, a slogan, but successful programmes are quite complex and involve more than ‘sport’. For example, I did a big project in Africa for Comic Relief, and I was asked to make a presentation to the Comic Relief youth workers who were sceptical about sport, largely because they thought sport is about competition and potentially destructive competitive elements. I made my presentation, and the response at the end of the presentation was ‘that's what we do anyway!’ So I explained how sport can work, not in the way that they thought it works, but in a much more complicated, developmental way. I think this is what sport has to explain - that it understands the complexity of the social issues it wishes to address. 

This is one of the paradoxes for sport; it seems to be a simple solution that politicians like, but it's often viewed as an overly simplified solution for people who understand the complexity of social problems. The aid environment sometimes doesn't like sport because they misunderstand it, because sport doesn't tell a good story.


Sport for development, and sport for employability projects are really social work and youth development projects in a sporting context. Once people begin to understand that sport is the context for this, it's not the sole mechanism, then it's much easier to tell a story.

This is why, in the Manual, we emphasise a theory of change approach, because that's the ability to say we understand how complicated these issues are. We start with the needs of the individuals, and we develop programmes around them and these programmes are much more complex than simply kicking a football around, because we understand developmental processes and our programmes reflect that. 

Social and health inequalities have been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. How can Coalition members conducting sport for employability programmes be more impactful in this environment, and how could the MONITOR manual support that? 

I think what you have to do to bring this Coalition together is almost forget about the word sport, and talk about mechanisms - what are the most important components of programmes? In the Manual we outline those in a programme theory. It's about social climate, it's about mentoring, it's about not overly competitive environments. It's about direction setting, it's about support, it's about stripping down, forgetting about sport and saying ‘these are the components that all programmes should have’…. you could write this document without mentioning sport! Nonetheless sport does provide an important context and, within any programme, these are the things that should be in it and this is what will make them effective.

Street League

I think following Covid, we need programmes to be more self-critical. They need to be able to ask themselves what do they do, and why do they do it? One of our case study organisations involved in piloting the Manual told us that it made them reflect and become more self-critical – go back to the core issues of their programme; what are the things that if they weren't there, would mean the programme would not work? Plus the wrap-around support which some organisations offer – such as providing aftercare when the young person is in work – is invaluable, for the employers as well as the young person. The way to really help young people is to have a positive relationship with a range of employers. 

Finally Fred, these inequalities seem to be contributing to long-term, or ‘structural’ youth unemployment becoming accentuated. Youth Employment UK say long-term youth unemployment, where a young person is out of work for six months or more, has risen by 50% over the last year. What more can we do about this? 

Firstly, I think you have to be realistic, for example jobs have to be accessible. When I worked with one organisation in Glasgow, the young people wouldn’t travel more than two bus stops because of gangs - but there were no jobs in the immediate environment. Then in London the cost of travel can be exorbitant…. the more you think about this, the more difficult it can become. If you are running a programme, I think you have to look for local employers and say ‘here’s the deal, we will prepare these people for the world of work, and we will stick with them for six months’ and that gives employers confidence. 

Employment is the key element here, not necessarily employability. That’s why organisations like Street League and Magic Bus are so good - they both have relationships with employers which guarantee employment at the end of the programme. If you just do employability programmes and then say ‘go off and look for a job’, that's no use to these young people because they often don't know how to access the labour market. They may be poor judges of what a good job looks like for them, and that’s where the mentoring comes in. Further ongoing support is vital – as one provider said to me ‘the real learning begins when they get a job’.

EFL Trust

Finally I think that you have got to be able to communicate better with funders and policy-makers, you have got to get away from over-emphasising sport, and see sport as a context for other things – and then say ‘here are the key mechanisms’ or ‘this is how we develop a young person's employability’. Tell a better story. This can also contribute to the development of programmes across the Coalition. If I may quote Carol Weiss ⁽¹⁾: 

"Knowing the mechanism that works is important for other sites that want to adopt the successful programme. It might not be possible for others to replicate all aspects of the programme, but when they know the essential levers, they can make the adaptation without fear of losing the key components that make the programme effective." 

Finally, I would like to emphasise that the Manual - produced with colleagues from the Free University of Brussels - is designed as a ‘one-stop shop’. It provides help to design and evaluate sport for employability programmes and we provide specially-designed Excel spread sheets (with an instruction video) to enable under-resourced organisations to collect and analyse data on a range of relevant outcomes outlined and explained in the Manual. 

To find out more about MONITOR, visit 

References: (1) Weiss, C (1997) How can theory-based evolution make greater headway? Evaluation Review Vol 21 pp 501-524.
Pic credits: Leadership Through Sport & Business, Street League, EFL Trust, Sport England.