Elite sports is one of the hardest industries to break into, yet there are no plans for any technical routes, laments Jo Maher

The independent panel on technical education’s report in 2016 identified “15 clear routes to skilled employment” where there is a “substantial requirement for technical knowledge and practical skills”.

Sport was not one of them.

Sport is one of the most competitive industries there is, with worldwide audiences, major international events and billions of pounds in revenue generated annually. Sport is an industry so technical that at elite performance level you have to complete up to three years of training after completing a master’s program to become accredited or chartered. Sport covers professional and technical jobs across biomechanics, physiology, psychology, performance analysis, coaching, and strength and conditioning.

Physical activity, exercise and leisure are industries in their own right but with a clear synergy to sport, requiring transferable knowledge and similar competencies. I fully endorse AoC Sport’s stance that a ‘Sport and physical activity’ career pathway should be acknowledged within the occupational maps and the route amended to ‘Health, science, sport and physical activity’.

Sport has not engaged as much as other sectors in the apprenticeship reforms

The Institute for Apprenticeship states that the “maps are not an exhaustive overview of the labour market and will be regularly reviewed and updated”. To be successful, it will be necessary to prove that sport is a skilled occupation, with a substantial requirement for technical education and training that cannot be learnt exclusively on the job. Is this the case?

To become a chartered professional is a mark of professional competency in a particular field of work. The British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES) runs an accreditation scheme, which leads to chartered scientist status and the scheme is widely recognised in elite sport as a standard for employment. Furthermore, the role of sport and exercise psychologist is now a protected title. There is no doubt that high levels of technical education and training are required to operate in elite sport.

So why is the T-level sport missing?

I have been told that sport must be academic as opposed to technical because students go to university. The logic is that A-levels instead of technical qualifications would place sport on the academic side of qualification reform. However, employers still require technical training, leaving master’s graduates spending up to three years on technical training, at their own expense in many cases, in order to get a job.

The attraction of working in elite sport is meanwhile so high that professional clubs can ask for higher-level qualifications than roles may require, for low salaries, and still be spoilt for choice. I have seen professional football clubs in England offering £12,000 salaries and requiring a minimum of a BSc and to be accredited, while many teams offer internships and voluntary roles.

This is where the problem lies. There has been an overreliance on motivated postgraduates continuing to develop their technical skills, as opposed to improving the system in order to map the technical training as part of their studies. Not because technical training is not needed or is needed only at postgraduate level. The result is that sport has not engaged as much as other sectors in the apprenticeship reforms.

The uptake of vocational qualifications at level three across the sector has been strong for a number of years. However, apprenticeships in sport are not widely available, resulting in low enrolment numbers when compared to other sectors. The advanced apprenticeship in sporting excellence is the exception, and it has long supported young athletes with the training required to succeed in elite sport, specific to the performance side.

I cannot think of another industry that demands up to nine years of training, at a minimum cost of £36,000, to employ a person on an average salary of £18,000.

We must do better.

Co-ordinating the technical training requirements across the sector and including sport in the occupational maps may trigger the shift needed. Developing T-levels, level three apprenticeships and higher apprenticeships for elite sport job roles, supported by key stakeholders such as BASES, would benefit students, employers and the taxpayer.

Jo Maher is principal and CEO of Boston College

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  1. Gareth Harries

    I acknowledge this article was written in 2018 but from the research I have carried out it seems very little has changed in respect of sport and T levels. Do you know if anything is likely to change? It would be really useful to see some proposals as to what providers are going to do with future learners with a BTEC level 3 profile who would have been succesful in the past. Unless this is sorted there will be a lot of 16-18 without a pathway tio their future, in my opinion.