Cherwell: Getting children and their families active

A team of youth ambassadors led a project in the Oxfordshire district of Cherwell to get children from its most deprived neighbourhoods active. 

A team of youth ambassadors have led a project in the Oxfordshire district of Cherwell to get children from its most deprived neighbourhoods active. Children and their families are invited to take part in 12-week activity programmes before being given discounted access to local leisure services. 

How programme is making ‘huge difference’ 

The FAST (Families Active Sporting Together) programme was launched in 2018 with funding from Sport England. It was initially rolled out in parts of Banbury before being launched in the district’s other two main towns, Bicester and Kidlington, a year later. 

The youth ambassadors run 12-week physical activity sessions for children and their families in schools and community settings. The idea is to get the participants involved in a range of different activities. 

Cherwell District Council Sport and Physical Activity Manager Tom Gubbins said: “We start trying fun, energetic games like dodgeball or capture the flag – things they may not necessarily have tried before and keep going from there. The emphasis is on having fun and doing something for the whole family as well as giving them ideas for how they can keep active in their own time.” 

To aid this, participants are given a FAST card which provides them with access to discounted sessions at partner leisure centres and clubs. This includes access to everything, from £3 family swimming sessions, as opposed to £13, to boxing for £1 rather than £5. The discounted membership continues after they have completed the 12-week physical activity programme, while they are also able to loan sports equipment so they can play games at home. 

Earlier in the pandemic the programme had to adapt with socially-distanced activities taking place in local parks and green spaces. An activity hub was also developed to give families a place to find information and videos from the activators on how to keep active. An app, Street Tag, that had just been launched before the pandemic hit, also proved popular, allowing users to track how much walking, cycling and running they were doing against others in their local areas. 

Now restrictions have ended the programme is back to normal. There are currently 7,000 people involved from more than 2,000 families. The impact of the programme on them is significant. Prior to starting FAST only 15 per cent of families reported being active together five or more times a month, compared to 52 per cent of families afterwards. 

Individual feedback also illustrates the affect. One father who has taken part with his children said it had made a “huge difference” with his children now regular attendees at the local swimming and climbing centres. “In all fairness, we wouldn’t have been able to do Clip n Climb because of the cost – I hear it every week ‘when can we go again daddy?”

Meanwhile, a mother of a five-year-old said taking part in FAST had completely changed her approach to physical activity. “She really enjoys exercising a lot more now when she didn’t really before. She sees it more like playing. The youth activators made it so much fun.”  

Reaching out to the most in need 

But what sets the scheme apart is how it has worked with communities and prioritised targeting the most disadvantaged communities. Nearly a third of participants live in the most deprived wards, while 14 per cent are from BME groups – twice the proportion of the local population that is from an ethnic minority. 

This has been achieved through the way referrals are made and the scheme is promoted. The council works closely with the local housing association, children’s centres and local mosques which refer on the families they work with.  

A postcode filter is also used when the scheme is promoted on social media and through other channels so people applying to take part are filtered out if they are not from the target neighbourhoods. 

Mr Gubbins said: “We have worked very closely with our communities to ensure the support reaches the people who need it the most. Our partners help people they work with apply to get on the programme and help us tailor the programmes to engage everyone. For example, in partnership with the local mosque FAST has delivered female-only private swimming sessions for mothers and children, equipped with female lifeguards and privacy screens.” 

In fact, it has proved so successful that Oxfordshire County Council’s public health team has agreed to start funding the programme and is expanding it out to other parts of the county.  

Director of Public Health Ansaf Azhar said: “We know that access to and the cost of physical activity opportunities can make it difficult for some people to be as active as they would like. FAST has been shown to increase activity among groups who can be the least active and by offering funding we hope that some of the positive elements can be expanded countywide.” 

And Mike Diaper, Sport England’s Executive Director of Children, Young People and Tackling Inactivity, added: “We’re delighted to see the positive impact FAST has had, helping to tackle inequalities and supporting families to get active and build healthy habits.” 

Contact details 

Tom Gubbins, Sport and Physical Activity Manager, Cherwell District Council: [email protected]