When a dishevelled looking 12-year-old first turned up at his local
community boxing scheme in Manchester, project workers were amazed.
Here was a lad they had been trying to reach for months without
success. But he liked boxing and began coming regularly, often
three times a week, to train at the club.
Over time, project workers operating alongside the boxing coaches
began to develop a rapport with the boy. They knew he was
offending, that his mother was working as a prostitute and that he
was dabbling with class A drugs.
But as it transpired, this was just the tip of the iceberg. Not
only was he himself getting dragged into prostitution, but the boy
was also being physically and mentally abused. Before he started
boxing he hadn’t told anyone – there had never been anyone to
A year down the line and the boy is safe in local authority care.
He is off drugs, no longer offending and even at school four days a
week. He no longer goes to boxing – but that hardly matters.
Although striking, this is by no means an isolated example of the
effect sport can have on the lives of vulnerable young people. In
Penryn, an area of Cornwall that experiences significant rural
deprivation, a summer holiday scheme at the local sports college
helped to reduce reported incidents of antisocial behaviour to zero
over three years.
Similarly, opening a community sports hall in a deprived part of
Sunderland contributed to a 57 per cent reduction in reported youth
offending on the neighbouring estate within a year.
Before these initiatives antisocial behaviour had been rife in both
places and was a major source of tension within the respective
communities. These are just two examples of an increasing number of
projects that, through sport, provide opportunities for socially
excluded groups and individuals to engage more positively with
To date, provision of this sort has tended to be ad hoc – reliant
on additional funding within designated sports action zones or from
successful applications to the likes of the Football Foundation or
Sport England’s active community development fund. Despite an
increasing acceptance of its potential, sport has yet to become
embedded as part of the wider social agenda.
Now, however, local authorities are being encouraged to use sport
in a more structured way to meet their local public service
agreement (LPSA) targets. The carrot of a government grant –
averaging between £1m and £9m for each authority – is
being dangled to entice the design and delivery of initiatives that
meet key local priorities. Funding will be released in three
instalments, with the final payment – received at the end of the
three-year period – conditional on the successful achievement of
Although sport is not a compulsory part of an LPSA, there can be a
crucial correlation between the work done by social services
professionals and their sporting counterparts. Together with their
partners in schools, sports governing bodies and in clubs, sports
development departments at local authorities have the resources to
deliver activities that target disaffected and disengaged
Where sports professionals often struggle, however, is in finding
out exactly where and at whom to target this provision so that it
has the desired impact. Social services departments and youth
offending teams have this knowledge. At the same time, however,
while many of their clients might benefit from involvement in
sport, social services and YOTs do not always have the capacity to
deliver the activities themselves.
Sue Appleton, senior investment manager at Sport England, believes
the sort of collaboration required under LPSAs could facilitate a
much closer relationship between community sport and social
“It is about local authority services working together at the
strategic level and isolating areas where delivery can be
multi-agency,” she says. “The exact roles and responsibilities of
those departments involved in delivery must also be clearly
Mainstream sporting provision often excludes certain youngsters,
who either can’t afford it or are banned from taking part because
of their antisocial behaviour. Interagency collaboration can
overcome this problem, targeting specific activities at particular
groups and individuals.
In Hastings, East Sussex, officers from the local YOT work with
coaches from the Brighton Bears basketball team to deliver a
basketball coaching scheme for at-risk youngsters. While coaches
deal with technical matters and lead activity, the YOT supports
youngsters when personal issues spill over into situations that
might otherwise lead to their exclusion from the activities.
Meanwhile, the government runs a national sports-based social
inclusion programme called Positive Futures, aimed at marginalised
10- to 19-year-olds in the most deprived areas of the
The aim of this scheme is not to produce the next David Beckham or
Kelly Holmes, but to help young people develop confidence, along
with social, teamwork and leadership skills. In helping them to
feel more positive about themselves and the communities in which
they live, Positive Futures has also proven to be an effective
crime prevention strategy.
Chris Dare, national community youth work co-ordinator for
rehabilitation agency Nacro, is convinced that for sport to be
effectively used as a tool of social engagement, the work done by
social services professionals after young people have become
involved in sport is crucial.
“In some cases, just getting a young person to turn up regularly,
over a period of time, is a major success,” he says. “From here, we
can let them know about further education and training programmes.
In some cases it is just about getting a young person back into
Sustaining these projects is the key to lasting success, Dare
“We always have to face the problem of what happens when the money
runs out,” he says. “In order that the community will continue to
benefit, it is vital that the community itself takes ownership of
the activity from the start. As they get older, many youngsters who
have previously been involved in the activity can move into
coaching and leadership roles. In this way, the next generation of
participants are catered for and the young leaders themselves have
a positive role within their community.”
If the use of sport to tackle youth offending and social exclusion
is to become an established part of the system, then the staff
working in social services departments, in sports development units
and in YOTs must take ownership of the idea. Only they can relate
such strategies to the particular needs of their clients.