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Interview: Jane Nickerson

As Swim England marks its 150th year, CEO Jane Nickerson talks to Steph Eaves about where the organisation has come from and where it’s going

by Steph Eaves, Health Club Management and Sports Management | Published in Sports Management 2019 issue 2
Jane Nickerson took up the role of CEO of Swim England in April 2017
Jane Nickerson took up the role of CEO of Swim England in April 2017

How is Swim England’s 150th year being marked?
We are enormously proud to be celebrating such a milestone anniversary. At our inception in 1869 we were the only governing body of swimming in the world, and we were instrumental in the formation of the world body FINA.

We’ll be marking the anniversary with a year-long digital campaign, engagement activity with our members, celebrations at our national events, and a number of exciting new initiatives.

We’re very proud that our organisation has played a role in the wider social history of England. In particular, the role of women within sport, including the recognition of female swimmers in 1901 and the introduction of swimming to the national curriculum in 1994.

To celebrate this, we’ll be launching an online library to bring our history to a wider audience in our anniversary year and beyond. We already curate a physical collection at our head office, which holds thousands of items of swimming memorabilia, training manuals, books, photographs and records dating from the 19th Century. Converting these items to a digital format is an exciting project that will develop in the years to come.

In addition, we’ve launched a Swim England Hall of Fame to honour the achievements of individuals who have made a significant impact on aquatics. Athletes, coaches and volunteers across England will all be considered for submission into the Hall of Fame after being suggested by the public. The initial induction will also recognise pioneers from our illustrious 150-year history.

I’m a big believer in ensuring history informs the future and that we need to build on the past, keep moving forward and recognise the great achievements of those who came before us. I am mindful that we are just the custodians of the sport today – if we all work to leave it in a better place when we move on, it will continue to evolve and thrive.

What’s the current focus at Swim England?
Our focus remains firmly on our vision of ‘A Nation Swimming’ and our six objectives, which are to:
1. Provide strong leadership and be the recognised authority for swimming
2. Substantially increase the number of people able to swim
3. Significantly grow the number and diversity of people enjoying and benefiting from regular swimming
4. Create a world leading talent system for all our disciplines
5. Deliver a high quality, diverse and motivated workforce within swimming
6. Strengthen our organisational sustainability for future generations

In order to achieve these objectives, we set ourselves strong key performance indicators and areas of intense focus. These currently include working to ensure every child learns to swim at school, working on the provision of adequate, appropriate facilities to enable everyone to swim or enjoy the water in the way they want to enjoy it and ensuring there are sufficient numbers of qualified and well trained teachers and coaches plus sufficient well trained, respected and happy volunteers.

What’s the current level of participation? Has this increased or declined from previous years?
According to the Active Lives survey, more than 4.7m people aged 16 and over go swimming at least twice every month. The trend over the past ten years shows that while there is a reduction in those aged 16 and 44, there has been an increase in those aged 45 and over swimming regularly. This indicates swimming is a way for people to keep active as they get older.
Our own data shows that 81 per cent of people aged over 11 can swim. The activities they participate in include learn to swim programmes, club swimming, talent development, aquafit classes, family fun sessions, enjoying flumes and wave machines, as well as newer innovations, such as inflatable assault courses in swimming pools.

There are 1.2m children and 30,000 adults on our learn to swim programmes with these classes taking up more of the pool programmes at peak times than 10 years ago.

How has the organisation evolved under your leadership? What are you most proud of so far?
I’m really proud of the collaborative culture across the organisation, which includes both our internal staff, volunteers and our partnership work. Everything we do across the whole organisation, which includes our regions and counties, is focused on our vision and objectives.

Through our leadership of the Swim Group, which was set up in 2015 by Sport England, we now have an industry-wide group that is also focused on the same objectives and vision.

We’ve totally changed our governance structure and moved from an unincorporated association to a company limited by guarantee with charitable status. We are very proud to be a charity and to use the proceeds from our trading companies to carry out our work.

We take inclusion very seriously and we’re delighted to have achieved the Equality in Sport Advanced Level alongside British Swimming.

How are you working to improve the sport for people of all ages?
To ensure our clubs achieve the higher standards of governance, safeguarding and business planning we have an accreditation and toolkit programme – SwimMark. A total of 56 per cent of our clubs have achieved SwimMark and this covers around 70 per cent of our members.

In addition, we developed Club Networks to help clubs to work together to achieve higher levels of sustainability, better usage of facilities and more trained staff, and to create pathways for talented athletes.

Swimming relies heavily on volunteers and we are working to support greater levels of recruitment and to recognise and retain our volunteers more effectively.

How do you engage children and improve skill levels?
Our Learn to Swim programme is an all-inclusive programme that takes non-swimmers from their first splash to developing confidence and competence in the water.

The programme aims to ensure swimmers are provided with a progressive, diverse programme that reflects good practice in line with our recommendations. Through our work with lesson providers, we currently have 1.2 million children taking part in our Learn to Swim programmes.

We’re committed to making sure every child leaves primary school able to swim and with a good knowledge of water safety. To support this aim, Swim England and the Swim Group have created a resource pack for all those involved in the delivery of curriculum swimming and water safety.

Many children learn to swim outside school. But for some, primary school will be the only opportunity they have to learn these vital lifesaving skills. That’s why it’s so important to ensure all our primary schools are supported to provide the best possible swimming and water safety provision for all their pupils.

Our School Swimming and Water Safety Charter gives schools access to extensive resources.

These can help and support them to develop a great school swimming experience for the pupils they teach, not just in the pool, but in the classroom too.

The whole essence of our programme is fun and all our learning outcomes are based on ensuring children enjoy games and fun in the water whilst learning to swim.

How are you encouraging children to stay in the sport once their lessons end?
We have a thriving club network but we are always seeking to improve on how young swimmers can transition into clubs. We are investing in ‘talent lanes’, where young swimmers can get a taste of club swimming towards the end of their learn to swim programme.

In addition to this we run great START programmes for our aquatic sports to help people to transition into artistic (synchronised) swimming, water polo, open water swimming and diving.

Our popular Learn to Swim Awards encourage children to try the different aquatic disciplines.

How are you attracting beginner adults or adults who have not swum for many years?
Around 19 per cent of the adults in this country are unable to swim, or cannot swim more than 25 m. We’ve created new opportunities for people to improve their skills and we have specialist programmes in place to teach adults to swim.

We also work in partnership with facility owners and operators to develop more innovative ways for adults to enjoy the water. We’ve worked with facility owners and operators to increase the visibility of the pool through campaigns and marketing.

Water is a particularly good medium for those with a variety of health issues and our Water Wellbeing programmes are rolled out in partnership with charities such as Versus Arthritis and MIND. Our aquatic referral scheme ensures that those who can benefit from this programme are signposted to the pool and to the relevant sessions by health professionals. We have some excellent case studies that show the benefits of this programme, including people who have much greater mobility and strength.

Masters Swimming is also a growing area of our sport and we are trialling a START Masters programme to encourage people into this pathway.

Open Water swimming has exploded in popularity and is inspiring many adults to get back into the water for a new challenge. We have started to offer a START Open Water programme, run additional events and are working with our clubs to expand this offer.

How accessible is swimming for various groups?
We’re working hard to engage older audiences, as in many cases swimming is the only activity that can be done in a supportive, pain-free environment.

We’re about to launch a programme funded by the London Marathon Charitable Trust whereby a number of pools will be provided with a PoolPod which provides independent and dignified entry into the water for wheelchair users or people with limited mobility.

Our Dementia Friendly Swimming project provides enhanced accessibility for those living with dementia and their carers. The original programme was run in more than 100 pools across the country and the learning from these has been shared widely through our digital platforms; we know that many more pools have improved accessibility as a result.

Do you have any strategies around facilities?
We review water deprivation – areas that have less supply than the population density requires – annually to assess where we need more water space.

Our support to the industry includes technical advice on new pool builds, refurbishments and ongoing support regarding water treatment, pool plant queries, etc. Our aim is to influence at least 80 per cent of all new builds through our partnership with Sport England and Local Authorities/Councils across England.

How do major events affect participation?
Major events can have a real impact on participation. We saw a very noticeable increase in our website hits, particularly Poolfinder searches, on the back of the Rio Olympics. We will be aiming for the same around the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham. We are also using major events to invest in the grassroots of the sport.

The Commonwealth Games will also provide us with a unique opportunity to build a programme around the new diving facility in Sandwell. We are working to develop diving in an area that doesn’t currently have a 10m platform. We believe that this programme, combined with what we expect to be a strong performance by the England Team in 2022, will inspire a new generation of divers in a place where previously this opportunity was unavailable.

What are the major challenges that affect participation? How are you overcoming these?
We undertook research into the key challenges. Firstly, it’s lack of confidence in swimming ability. In order to combat this, we’re utilising a significant amount of resources to ensure all 11 year old children leave school able to swim 25m, are competent in multiple strokes and can perform a safe self-rescue.

Secondly, swimming is seen as lacking relevance to people’s lives: We’re working to overcome this barrier by showing people the benefits of swimming and how it can fit into their busy lives, and by working with partners to ensure programmes are in place that will attract different audiences.

Swimming is a ‘hidden sport’, not as visible as football, cycling and running, for example. We have worked with partners to increase the sport’s visibility, and various media campaigns have supported this work. The #LoveSwimming campaign, supported by 12 industry partners, promotes swimming and the specific benefits of being active in water.

What are your plans for the future?
I plan to ensure we continue to focus on our objectives and to move nearer to a position where every child can swim, everyone has access to a pool in their locality and a programme they wish to participate in, where those with long-term conditions are given the opportunity to have a better quality of life because of the benefits of swimming and where we develop more and more talented and well-rounded athletes and more and more trained coaches and teachers.

My immediate focus is to find innovative ways to provide affordable water space in communities and to help some of our clubs to find a way to own their own facility, all the while maintaining pressure on Government to fulfil the recommendations in the Curriculum Swimming and Water Safety Review Group Report 2017.

What is The Swim Group?

The Swim Group was set up in 2015 by Sport England.

It consists of representatives from across the swimming sector.

Chaired by Swim England CEO Jane Nickerson, the Swim Group meets quarterly to discuss the big issues impacting on swimming, water safety and participation, and works to promote partnerships and best practice throughout the sector.

  • To increase participation in swimming and aquatic sports.
  • To bring together key leaders within the sector to challenge issues and improve our sport.
  • To create a unified sector voice to raise the profile of swimming and influence government and other agencies.
  • To share best practice and ensure the sector is working in partnership for the betterment of swimming.
  • To focus on agreed key areas and create sub-groups with specific tasks where required.
  • To increase the visibility of swimming and water safety through shared initiatives and interventions.
  • To ensure our sport is fit for the future by embracing new opportunities and technology.
  • To work collaboratively to increase the opportunities for participation in quality swimming programmes.
  • To establish communication channels with the home nations’ national governing bodies for swimming to ensure greater cooperation.
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