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Response to Swim England Report

A reaction to the report into behaviour and culture at Swim England and in aquatics disciplines.

Date: 6th Mar 2024

Author: Craig Beeston, The Chartered Governance Institute UK & Ireland

Yesterday’s Heart of Aquatics Listening Research Report, commissioned as part of Swim England’s safeguarding, welfare and culture plan, revealed a number of issues and familiar failings within one of our sporting bodies. Again, serious questions have been raised about the prevailing organisational culture, misaligned incentives and the precariousness of the balance between driving performance and providing a safe, welcoming environment for all, whether they are athletes, coaches, employees or volunteers.

It is of course troubling to see a number of echoes of the Whyte Review, published over 18 months ago now. Once again, there is evidence of aggressive coaching styles, power imbalances and the belief that certain behaviour is to be expected in a competitive environment. Similarly apparent are a reluctance to challenge inappropriate conduct due to a fear of repercussions, procedural obstacles to bringing concerns to light, and a seeming blindness on the part of the organisation in terms of investigating complaints or uncovering the extent of the problem.

Effective governance plays a crucial role in establishing agreed values, the embedding of a positive culture where people can thrive, and the implementation of robust and trusted mechanisms for surfacing issues in which those with concerns or complaints can have faith that they will be treated fairly and in confidence.

The failings identified within Swim England as an organisation and across aquatics generally are both cultural and procedural – though the two are not unconnected. We noted when the Whyte Review was published that culture creation, robust policies and procedures – including reporting – and effective oversight are the responsibility of the board, but also that

culture belongs to everyone in an organisation. When unacceptable behaviour is normalised by its prevalence, when there is an absence of confidence in or aversion to using remedial processes, where complaint handling systems are unfit, and where inappropriate and outdated methods are seen to yield results, an adverse culture develops.

Sadly, too many of these observations are also applicable to yesterday’s report.

Swim England have apologised for the failings identified and fully accept the report's findings. Sport England meanwhile have made it clear that continued funding for the organisation will be focused on addressing the issues so starkly highlighted, and have noted that the report's publication and the arrival of new leadership offer an opportunity take a fresh look, act decisively and take the sport forward. While there might indeed be calls from some quarters that punitive action ought to be taken, including the ceasing or reducing of funding, it surely is more constructive to work with Swim England and support them in effecting change, putting the sport on a sound footing for current and future generations.

While findings such as those published by Swim England reveal serious and systemic problems which demand serious attention and rectification, it is of course important not to lose sight of the tremendous work undertaken by committed individuals across the aquatics world as well as the sports sector more widely. The report notes the positive experiences which sport offers: camaraderie, physical and mental wellbeing, a sense of progress and achievement. Our organisations owe it to their participants, employees and volunteers to learn the lessons of this report in order to ensure that sport offers a safe, open and inclusive environment for everyone and to position performance within a more holistic definition of success which places a premium on the wellbeing people involved and the quality of their experience with sport.

If you or anyone you know has been impacted by any of the issues raised in the Heart of Aquatics Listening Research Report, there are a variety of support services available.

Also of interest, these tips from the Ann Craft Trust following the recent broadcast of an ITV documentary on abuse in sport.