Open Letter To Swim England Calls For Representation In Choosing Masters Chair

Lane Lines and stumbling blocks - Photo Courtesy: Becca Wyant

In an Open Letter to Swim England, English Masters have challenged governors to practise what they preach, reach for transparency and allow grown-up athletes to have a genuine say in running their affairs 

Key Masters swimming volunteers have written an open letter to Swim England, formerly the Amateur Swimming Association (since 1869), calling on governors to allow the community of senior athletes a genuine say in who will represent them in the decision-making process of their sport.

The letter has been issued ahead of a decision on whom should chair the Masters Committee of the association. Swimmers want clarity from the association and are asking for Swim England to “set out its intentions in advance”.

The Masters move comes at a time when the athlete voice is getting ever louder and making headlines around the world on many fronts and issues. Adam Peaty, Chad le Clos, Sarah Sjostrom, Cate Campbell and Katinka Hosszu are among Olympic champions helping to establish an Athletes’ Union that will represent them directly at the top tables of governance in swimming without the filter of in-house appointments to Athletes’ Commissions and Committees that have been criticised for failing to consult those they are supposed to speak up for.

Swim England has already come under fire from Masters in swimming and from water polo over what athletes have described as a “poor governance culture”.

According to the open letter, signed by all the individuals who currently serve as Masters representatives of the Swim England regions, they have been trying to discuss this issue with Swim England for more than two months but have not yet received any satisfactory assurances.

The open letter emphasises the constructive way in which the signatories themselves have recently all worked together on Masters issues and their desire to work with Swim England in the same cooperative manner.

Several of the signatories highlighted to Swimming World their conviction that the issues that some of them have can easily be solved with dialogue and goodwill on both sides.

Several also said that they remain optimistic of a positive response from Swim England, which has recently made some welcome efforts at engagement.

However, the open letter also makes clear their reluctance to engage in any process with a Chair and structure that is  imposed upon them from above:

“Only through a process of [the kind we propose] can we be sure that the person chosen [as Chair] will have our confidence. And we need to stress that without such a process we cannot give our own assurances that we will be able to work with the new Chair and the new structure.“

While Swim England has recently been forced to adopt a minimum level of good practice, under threat of withdrawal of funding, by putting in place rules in line with the Sport England Governance Code, it is widely recognised – including by the UK Government – that this is only a start, and that a serious culture change is needed in the world of sport that extends beyond mere box ticking for compliance.

After noting the existence of general policy statements referring to transparency, stakeholder engagement and the value of volunteers, the open letter challenges Swim England:

“…to show that these are more than just bits of paper that allow you to tick the “governance” boxes, and that you are willing to engage in a genuine partnership with your key volunteers”

More specifically, the open letter calls upon the organisation to allow the regional reps – who must work with the appointed Chair – the main say in the appointment, and to set out such a process in a transparent manner in advance of applications, so that applicants can make a decision to apply knowing what they are dealing with.

The open letter from Masters notes that Swim England often bemoans the lack of volunteers. However, key volunteers are leaving their posts because of the way they are being treated and the working environment they find themselves in, say the signatories to the letter.

When the entire water polo committee resigned recently, the departing Chair cited “lack of leadership, vision and governance” at Swim England, coupled with “poor management, delivery and a lack of transparency”. Another committee member said she left with the perception of being constantly undermined by Swim England staff. 

Below is the full text of the open letter:

Open letter to Swim England

  • calling for Masters representation in choosing the new Masters Chair

Dear Swim England,

We write to you as the individuals who currently serve as Masters reps for seven of the regions. (The East region has no rep at present.) In our official capacities we are responsible for Masters provision in our regions (Development days, regional meets etc) and also implement national initiatives, such as the inter-county event.

The new Masters Chair and our concerns

Recently Swim England advertised for a new Masters Chair. This is a crucial appointment, including because the Chair will help create a new Masters structure – something our group has already done a lot of work on.

However, we are concerned that our community will not have the input into the Chair appointment that is needed to make it a success. We have tried collectively to engage in dialogue with you on this for more than two months, but still have no assurance that Masters will have appropriate input.

It is essential for the regional reps to be involved for two reasons:

  1. The new Chair needs to have the full confidence of the regional reps to ensure a strong cooperative relationship – we are the people who will be working with the new Chair/structure; and
  2. The key stakeholders – the Masters community – must have some say, in order to ensure that the new system truly serves our interests. The regional reps are the best “representative group” that Masters has on a manageable scale, and we don’t see any viable alternative for real community input. (For Swim England itself to hand pick individuals obviously would not serve this purpose and would be totally out of line with modern governance culture – as clearly illustrated by the recent comments of GB elite athletes over that kind of approach to their “representation” within FINA.)

Our recent experience as reps has shown we can work effectively together to reach a consensus on the things that matter with a spirit of good will and compromise, even if we don’t all agree on everything. We are optimistic that this constructive environment, along with the new Chair appointment and chance of a new Masters structure, offers a golden opportunity to move forward, both in expanding participation in Masters and improving the Masters experience. We have many ideas and would like to work closely with Swim England to implement them. However, we cannot do this without trust and representation.

What we propose

We accept that the Chair of the Swim England Swim Leadership Group should chair the appointment panel. However, we propose that the majority of panel members should be chosen by a consensus of regional reps. This process also needs to be agreed before applications are closed, so that those applying know what the stakeholder involvement will be.

Only through a process of this kind can we be sure that the person chosen will have our confidence. And we need to stress that without such a process we cannot give our own assurances that we will be able to work with the new Chair and the new structure.

You often lament the shortage of volunteers, yet time and again capable people leave the sector because they feel that Swim England does not truly listen to their views. You have policies talking about transparency, stakeholder engagement and the value of volunteers. We call upon you now to show that these are more than just bits of paper that allow you to tick the “governance” boxes, and that you are willing to engage in a genuine partnership with your key volunteers.

We look forward to your positive response and thereafter to working with you to offer a better experience to Masters.

Yours (in alphabetical order),

  • David Alexander
  • Sue Arrowsmith
  • Jim Boucher
  • Jean Childs
  • Sue Haigh
  • Richard Jones
  • Jeroen Peters

1 comment

  1. avatar
    Christine Goodair

    An excellent letter and sets out the issues and concerns very clearly. It is so sad to hear that that our Sports Body, Swim England, has not learnt from previous matters mentioned in the letter that failing to respect and value its volunteers is detrimental to Swim England and the swimming, water-polo etc.