Sport, poverty and education

By Grant Jarvie

Access to sport can alter life chances and advance educational achievement.


Sport provides for both formal and informal education. The potential of sport to improve lives, help with the means to escape poverty and enhance educational achievement has yet to be fully realised and understood in Scotland. Sport can be a multi-faceted force for change and have far-reaching and multiple influences. It can help peoples’ development, raise aspirations, and be a source of hope across different demographics in society.

Sport should be embedded at every level of Scottish education particularly in areas of concentrated poverty. Universities are well placed to continue playing an integral part in developing the role of sport in the Scottish education system. Sports’ ethos and potential to improve life chances fits well with the ethos of Scottish Universities. Universities and sport are resources of hope. Universities are part of the fabric of Scottish life, fulfill the aspirations and hopes of many and because they have stood the test of time are ideal for building other things around them.

As Scotland strives to tackle poverty and boost educational achievement rarely do sport based interventions appear centre stage, but they can make a difference.

Access to sport can alter life chances and advance educational achievement but the power of education working with and through sport is something that Scotland has still to optimise.

Evidence exists to build such a case but does the political will? Education through sport is one of the most powerful local and international social tools that Scotland has but fails to fully use.

The challenges facing Scotland have been well documented and evidenced. Scotland does not face these challenges alone and it can certainly learn from looking at education through sport interventions used in other countries.

Key facts at March 2016

• Children born into poverty are 50% more likely to miss education milestones.
• 11% of children from the poorest areas leave school with no qualifications compared to 3% of the rest of Scotland.
• Schools (both sectors) Universities, Colleges, 151 Community Sports Hubs, Football Learning centres and 42 stadia embedded in Scottish communities.
• 210,000 children live in poverty in Scotland.;
• 2418 council run schools and an independent sector that uses sport to unlock potential and develop capabilities.
• Low incomes and debt problems often mean that small additional costs make some activities unaffordable. 14% of the Scottish population according to Scottish Governemnt 2016 figures live in low income poverty.

Sport, poverty and education

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The popularity of sport combined with carefully crafted education through sport interventions is not a solution but an important part of a solution. Build other things around it and sport can be a resource of hope. For some it can be an escape from poverty, for those involved it develops capabilities, its reach is rarely optimised and new sports are something all 3-18 year olds should have not the chance the right to learn. 

Sport matters and education through sport matters. Sport matters not just for sport per se but because of what it can do for other areas of public life and provision. It can reach areas where other policy areas struggle to reach. Combined sport and education interventions make a difference.

The social impact of sports based interventions including education through sport interventions tell us a lot..

  • Concentrations of poverty in areas of multiple deprivation impacts upon education. Education through sport interventions matter because they are proven to boost educational capability, confidence, mental health and other learning skills that help not just education levels but working and social lives.
  • The LSE study of poverty and access to sport talked to young people perceived not to be interested in sport “ it was an eye opener to learn how much joining in matters to young people, how much informal games, outdoor activity and sport can inspire and motivate them, and how many young people are held back from actively getting involved”.
  • Edinburgh (Moray House) and Oxford University studies of International women runners not only evidence how some women runners not only run to escape poverty but redistribute athletic wealth from running into social causes thus helping to build schools, provide scholarships and bursaries provide educational opportunity.

Scottish sport has historically contributed greatly to the social welfare of Scotland Education through sport is one of the most powerful local and international tools that Scotland has but fails to optimise.

Imagine a more healthy Scotland where all people can increase educational achievement, access sport, and alter life chances. .There is arguably few positive spheres of national life that can compete with the combined power of sport and education to make a real difference for health, education, social mobility, and winning friends though cultural relations initiatives.

Not affordable is an excuse- it is about political choice

Community groups fighting to have car free streets to allow children to play outdoor sport are thwarted on grounds of cost. It is not a question of cost but political choice.

The knowledge to unlock the potential of sports social toolbox exists but it needs to be much more of a priority through making braver political choices.

Creating hope where once there was despair

Great politicians, visionaries and inspirational leaders understand what sport can do. Mandela understood it but do our politicians believe Mandela enough to commit and act on his guidance.  

Creating opportunities for social mobility, education and altered life chances

While the case is not typical it is both timely and insightful as football and the world of football both celebrates and mourns the loss of the late Johan Cruyff.

For some football has been the informal education that has assisted with social mobility. As the obituaries for the great Johnan Cruyff rightly acclaim the great contribution that he made to world football it is perhaps easy to forget both the journey travelled and the importance of both the informal football education and a formal higher education to the three times world player of the year. He was the second son of Hermanus and Petronella Cruyff, brought up in Betondorp, a poor Amsterdam suburb and enrolled into the Ajax youth section at the age of 10. His mother worked for Ajax as a cleaner, his father a greengrocer died when he was 12 and his mother re-married to the groundsman at the Ajax club.

Cruyff was closely associated with the ideal and methods of total football which he took with him into a successful managerial career. Cruyff was fiercely conscious of the education and altered life chances that football had given him. He was also justifiably proud of his foundation that raised enormous funds to help sports participation of handicapped youngsters on an international scale. He was also proud of the Johan Cruyff Institute[]that looked to educate the next generation of leaders in sports management. The institute was founded in 1999 as a project of Johan Cruyff to train athletes in the world of management.

The passion for sport is used to drive education and development but also to provide opportunities.

To return to Scotland – What needs to be done?

Just Imagine:

  • If safe, supervised  parks and spaces to support sports activity flourish in all neighbourhoods.
  • If Game Changer initiatives to help sustain health and education were accessible through all local football stadia
  • If every child had the right, not just the chance to learn and sustain 3 sports by 3, 5 by 5 and 10 by 10 including swimming , recreational running and a team sport.
  • Free access to some forms of culture exist in Scotland but not others.
  • Building a world class community sports system which was the envy of the world with educational achievement and sports activity opened up through every, for example, community sports hub and care home.
  • If grassroots sports initiatives ,such as Spartans or Crags Community Centre in Edinburgh, were able to be sustained in every area of multiple deprivation.
  • If like some other countries one hour daily active quality physical education was sustained in every primary school.
  • Enabling a greater scale of early years interventions and affirming the right of every child to access sports’ activities such as swimming, recreational running, team sports and more.
  • Maximising the lure and adventure of sport reading to boost reading levels.
  • If Scotland had its own international inspiration sports programmes or its own equivalent of the Norway Cup.
  • If free accessible sports and education provision helped to address the issue of young people living in poverty and dropping out of sport after leaving school.
  • If we harness technology and accessibility to maximise the potential of popular sport and physical activity such as Football More than a Game.
  • The outreach work that Universities are doing through sport was both recognised and increased .
  • If an expanded Winning Students Bursary Scheme was able to support at least 2 students per year from each of Scotland’s 100 data zones from which the majority of children are deemed to be living in poverty.
  • School partnerships between the different school sectors and shared access to sports facilities.


Education is one of the greatest drivers to eradicate poverty and the concentration of poverty in areas of multiple deprivation. Sport can play a major role in Scottish education if the political will is there to unlock the potential of the social toolbox that is sport.

 Scotland is rich with policy ideas and opportunities do exist to build upon existing infrastructure, institutions and policy directions.     Further investment is necessary but the educational potential of sport should not be decided on grounds of cost but on its effectiveness and ability to transform lives.

In 2015 UNESCO issued a call to action for international policy makers in invest further in sport and physical education on the grounds that it was integral to greater educational attainment.   In Scotland we should rise to that challenge.

There are few spheres of our national life that can compete with the combined power of sport and education to make a real difference. Sport can be a resource of hope, it can assist with advancing educational achievement.

 Great leaders understand this.   “Sport has the power to change the world …..and create hope where once there was despair”[1].   Nelson Mandela, May 25th 2000.

[1] See