The growth in supervised fitness has seen a huge increase in FE courses to train the trainers. Joe Clancy reports.
When it comes to tackling obesity and improving the health and fitness of the nation, education and training have a rapidly expanding role to play.
Back in 1998, when modern apprenticeships began for the sport and active leisure industry, just 36 students registered for further education courses in their first year of operation.
This year there were 3,400 registrations for such apprenticeships in sport and recreation, sports development, coaching teaching and instruction, outdoor activities and play work. Four years ago there were fewer than 3,000 "out-of-school" clubs. Today there are 18,000, each led by people qualified to NVQ level 3 (A-level equivalent) and support staff with level 2 (GCSE equivalent). These statistics reflect changes in the way people, young and old, play and exercise. Where once children were allowed to play in the park or the street after school, more now take part in organised activities at sports clubs and leisure centres. Once, adults devised their own individual exercise activity or took part in organised team games. Now they join a gym, do fitness classes at a leisure centre or have personal coaching.
This has created a huge increase in demand for professional people qualified to coach, supervise and manage the activity. Colleges are playing a key role in that change.
This is where SkillsActive, the sector skills council for the sport and fitness industry, comes in. Chief executive Stephen Studd said: "It is about giving people the opportunity to take part in sport, physical activity, adventure and play, and getting the uncommitted involved in activity demands a different approach.
"To work actively with different target groups in the community does demand new skills and new training. People are not good at managing their own lifestyles. They need advice and guidance to get started. We have got to look at different sorts of environments where different activities are encouraged," he said.
"If you are going to increase opportunities for people to be active, you need a lot of people to provide the activities."
SkillsActive aims to provide skilled workers in a well-equipped industry, which Mr Studd sees as crucial to the nation's development.
It was the fourth sector skills council to be given its government licence.
Some 23 councils should be in place by the summer to meet all industry training needs. The first three were science and engineering, construction and information technology.
Mr Studd said: "I thought that was an important statement from the Government that we were the fourth sector to be recognised. We had to prove we were economically and strategically significant.
"Active and healthy lifestyles are a major theme if we are going to tackle obesity among children and address the general inactivity which is a major cause of health problems in later life. It is also accepted more and more that sport is a vehicle for getting young people back into society."
SkillsActive is currently responsible for setting standards for 620,000 paid employees, making it one of the smallest sectors covered by a skills council. But the figure is boosted by more than 2 million voluntary workers in sport, recreation, health and fitness, playwork, outdoor education and training, and the caravan industries.
A challenge for the industry,Mr Studd said, is to create a body that provides an identifiable career path for employees. "We are looking at what qualifications people need to enter the industry and what they need to progress," he said. "There has not been a structure set up in the past.
"The industry hasn't been the best for retaining its staff, partly because there hasn't been that identifiable career path. It is a sector that is attractive to young people. There is a lot on offer, the question is finding a way in and taking the right qualifications. It is a growing sector in terms of provision and courses related to it."
The sector, he added, is on a growth curve from providing 490,000 jobs in 1998 to 620,000 jobs this year, and is forecast to provide 750,000 jobs by 2008.
Latest figures show there were 62,500 enrolments in sport and leisure courses funded by further education in England, with a further 7,100 in Wales and 8,000 in Scotland. They took place in 460 institutions providing 321 qualifications covered by 74 bodies.
"We have just topped 100,000 NVQ registrations since 1997," he said. "We have major companies signing up to deliver apprenticeships across the workforce. We have had 14,282 people start on apprenticeships since 1998.
"Our task is to make sure we have the right people and enough of them with the right skills to give a new emphasis to participation in an activity and a healthy lifestyle."