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‘Perfect time’ for sport and physical activity to step up its role

There has “never been a better time” for sport and physical activity to play a greater role in preventing children and young people entering into the welfare and justice systems. 

That’s the view of Andrew Nichols-Clarke (left), Senior Development Lead on the Health & Justice Children Programme at NHS England. He is a national lead on healthcare provision for children and young people in the secure estate and those in the community who are at risk of ending up in the criminal justice or welfare system. 

In his view, several factors make this a critical moment for sport and physical activity to take a central role in supporting at-risk children and young people: 

1. The formalising in 2022 of Integrated Care Systems with 42 Integrated Care Partnerships each bringing together local partners (including local government, the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector (VCSE), NHS organisations and others) to develop a health and care strategy for their local area. Community sport organisations can take their place at those 42 tables (each Integrated Care Partnership has a website where they can be contacted).

2. The launch of the Get Well, Stay Well Agreement which will bring Government departments together in a shared commitment to promote health through physical activity and sport among the most vulnerable people in society. 

3. The Ministry of Justice’s new Youth justice Sport Fund, which has given £5million to over 200 community sport organisations in England and Wales who have a proven record of using sport effectively to reduce youth crime. 

“Sport has got a real opportunity here,” states Andrew. “Vulnerable young people can bounce around the system, end up in court, come into the secure estate and then need support – but if we work in an integrated way, we can use sport as an opportunity to identify these young people earlier and link them to other support services. 

“Mental health is really, really important. We’ve seen an increase in vulnerability for young people because of the pandemic and as their vulnerability and complexity increases, we see them ending up in the system. At a preventative stage, some of that lower-level need can be addressed through physical activity and wellness. 

“Putting children and young people into a place where they feel safe with a trusted adult (which they may lack elsewhere in their lives) and can reap the benefits of physical activity to support their mental health and wellbeing, is crucial.” 

NHS England’s progressive healthcare work in the children’s secure estate recognises that a ‘whole-child’ approach is most effective: understanding each child’s unique story so they can structure multi-disciplinary teams around them to support their individual needs and help them thrive. 

That ethos is what is now being developed in the community to support those at risk of falling into the justice and welfare systems. Sport can be a key piece in that puzzle.


“We need to educate sporting organisations about their potential in this area,” asserts Andrew. “We would welcome additional resources in the secure estate and in mental health and NHS services – but actually some young people could be supported by something alternative in sport and physical activity and not need those services. 

“We’ve got to allow young people access to those opportunities – and there’s never been a better time than now. Responsibility for healthcare is now moving to a more local level with the Integrated Care Partnerships, so sport organisations need to come to the table and say, ‘This is what we can offer’. We need to start those conversations and encourage those partnerships.” 

The recent £5m Youth Justice Sport Fund will only help this process, by boosting the capacity of community sport organisations to form local partnerships and expand effective early intervention work with at-risk young people. 

“It’s a real opportunity,” says Andrew. “It’s part of the classic public health approach – how can we all play our part in stopping young people reaching those higher levels of complexity and need? Physical activity in a supportive environment can definitely lower those risks.” 

The Get Well, Stay Well Agreement will also generate momentum for change across Government departments and provide a framework for improving the health of at-risk people in the welfare and justice systems through physical activity and sport. 

“It’s a great forum for everyone committing to this work which will cascade down to local populations,” says Andrew. 

Andrew highlights one of the case studies in the Get Well, Stay Well Agreement – Advantage Mentoring – which uses local football clubs to benefit young people who are on a children and young people mental health service waiting list. “That’s exactly the kind of good practice we want to develop,” he states. “By bringing different sectors and services together and asking, ‘What are the opportunities? What can you deliver?’ we’ll be able to expand these pockets of good work and make a much bigger impact.”