Fears charges could deter children from sports classes

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The value of the Comhairle’s Slàinte Mhath sports and gym membership scheme has been called into question this week after a Stornoway parent complained of facing additional charges for their children’s football lessons – previously included as part of the membership deal.

The parent, who asked not to be named, claimed: ”The charges for the lessons were introduced without prior warning and the costs of having young children attend several classes really adds up; the new charges make it difficult to justify the membership.”

News of the alleged changes in charges for children’s football classes came in the same week as the Comhairle claimed success for its Active Schools programme, with data from Sportscotland, showing significant increases in the numbers of children participating in sports and physical activities across the nation.

Comhairle nan Eilean Siar ran 45,397 participant sessions in the last year, and 1,597 individual children and young people took part in a wide range of sports and physical activities in those sessions.

Cllr Angus McCormack, Chairman of the Education, Sport and Children’s Services Committee, said: “The Active Schools programme in the Western Isles continues to have a positive impact as part of our commitment to providing opportunities for our young people to lead healthy and active lifestyles.

“Active Schools is a fantastic example of what can be achieved with focused partnership working, between national and local organisations, helping to make a difference to the lives of the young people in our communities through a wide range of support.”

But, while Active Schools might be seeing increases in participation, the Stornoway parent who was facing increased charges for their child’s football lessons, feared that some on lower incomes might be forced to stop going to out-of-school classes.

A spokesperson for the Comhairle stated: “Within the last two years we have seen an increase in demand for our activities. In order to continue provision of existing activities and expand provision to cope with demand, we had to introduce a charge to be able to pay our relief coaches.

“There is a discount of 50% for Slàinte Mhath members. This is similar to our Motiv8 holiday programmes, where we offer a discount to Slàinte Mhath members. Although under pressure to increase income to support our overall budgets we do what we can to minimise the costs. The Slàinte Mhath scheme itself remains the cheapest in Scotland.

The Comhairle also confirmed that in August 2018: “We piloted two additional fitness classes, which moved from free to chargeable over the summer to cover the costs of a hired-in sports coach/fitness instructor. These classes are under review to see if we can provide this free; attendance has been variable and seldom covering the costs.”

This statement was followed quickly that charges for the early morning fitness classes had been dropped.

The Slàinte Mhath scheme currently has 2829 memberships with 7143 participants, and the Comhairle confirmed that they are “not aware of members leaving the scheme because of the charges.”