Justin Merritt, director of Ignite Sport UK, reflects on more than two decades inspiring sport across all ages

Justin Merritt, director of Ignite Sport UK

Justin Merritt, director of Ignite Sport UK

WE have come a long way since we started as a small group delivering holiday camps and after school clubs in 1999.

Our founding vision to inspire people into sport remains steadfast to this day.

This ethos has been the key to our success.

It underpins everything that we do, and we take great pride in knowing we have developed thousands of people in Oxfordshire and beyond.

When I founded Premier Sports Group with three employees, we were backed by a national project called The Schools Football Initiative to deliver activities, raise funds for schools and inspire youngsters to play sport.

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It is hard to imagine 22 years later we are a national training provider employing just under 50 people and working with thousands of people annually.

There have been many milestones on our journey.

Our work has taken us overseas as far as Japan where we continue to work on long-standing projects through strong partnerships.

Our first breakthrough came in 2005 when Planning, Preparation and Assessment (PPA) time for teachers started.

PPA was introduced to help ease teachers’ workload by giving them time during their normal working week to plan and prepare lessons and assess students’ work.

It meant we could upscale our PE and club delivery in more than 130 schools across the Thames Valley.

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In 2008, we started delivering sports-based apprenticeships across five sites in Oxfordshire and Berkshire.

Together with City of Oxford College and Activate Learning, our apprenticeships support young peoples’ transition from education to full-time work in sport.

Today, we continue to provide schools in Oxfordshire with young and hungry leaders who have a passion for sport, teaching and coaching.

Aligned with our development has been the rise of our partners Oxford City Football Club.

Oxford City FC pitch. Picture: Ignite Sport UK

Oxford City FC pitch. Picture: Ignite Sport UK

I joined the club in 2005 as player assistant manager and progressed to player manager a year later.

I have been involved in various capacities ever since.

Back then, facilities were poor with training for all teams taking place on an uneven grass pitch where the Community Arena building is now.

We used to turn the floodlights around using a mechanism in the column – it was like training under candlelight.

Working with the club directors, a long-term strategy was implemented to develop football provision, infrastructure and facilities.

It took years of planning and fundraising to reach the point where we were able to open the revamped Community Arena in 2011.

It was a game changer and remains a wonderful facility for Oxfordshire.

Facilities include two 3G pitches, floodlit netball courts, a mini gym, classrooms, changing rooms and social areas.

It is now a major community hub for sport and football in the county.

The Community Arena, home of Ignite Sport UK

The Community Arena, home of Ignite Sport UK

We host numerous events including the Oxford netball league, university tournaments, and Oxford United Women’s fixtures.

It is also at the heart of many community sporting events with partners including the Football Foundation, England Netball, Oxford City Council, the University of Oxford, and Brookes University.

We rebranded in 2012 and became Ignite Sport UK to reflect the overall service we had developed.

We are now a training, education, sports management, and coaching company.

I am fortunate to have such a strong team of colleagues who have enabled us to expand the support we provide.

We are now a registered centre for five awarding bodies which has taken our training provider status from strength to strength.

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Ignite Sport UK also manages Oxford City Football Club’s junior and youth programmes, providing a strong development pathway for young footballers.

Last year we launched Velocity Football, our revamped full-time educational academy for young people interested in a career in sport.

Our football programme has been a big part of our business since 2001 and the relaunch further focused our passion for enthusing 16 to 18-year-olds in sport.

The pandemic has been incredibly challenging, but we have continued to innovate.

Engagement on our virtual school holiday camps and online PE has been strong, and we have delivered multiple online courses to people of all ages.

In the past year have also recruited new team members and 10 new apprentices to work in schools across Oxfordshire.

I’d like to thank past and present colleagues, suppliers and businesses we have worked and partnered with along the way.