Few doubt the power of football when it comes to uniting and enraging people, but does it also have the power to tackle racism, bullying and antisocial behaviour? An exciting partnership between Sunderland youth offending service and Sunderland Football Club is proving that it can.
Although the youth offending service was already working intensively with young people before it joined forces with the football club, more needed to be done to prevent them coming into contact with the youth justice system. As Alan Scott, prevention manager for Sunderland youth offending service, says: “One-to-ones don’t always help in the wider context. You can work closely with a young person and positively influence their behaviour and attitudes but this won’t necessarily extend to their peers.”
Scott was tasked with drawing up a prevention strategy, a job which required careful thought. “You have to be imaginative and creative about how you engage young people in prevention work because they don’t have to engage with you – they’re not on behaviour orders or anything.”
So he set out to harness the power of football. “On the basis that people in the North East are generally passionate about their local football teams, we approached Sunderland Football Club Foundation, the charitable arm of the club, and asked them if they would work with us.”
Through football coaching, worksheets and quizzes, young people are encouraged to think about certain issues. But it’s not just the scoreline that counts. “It’s not about winning games – instead points and rewards are given for how they play the games – for getting involved, good sportsmanship and positive attitudes,” says Scott. Good behaviour is rewarded with visits to matches and meetings with the players.
Young people have also been encouraged to take part through “star cards”. “They’re like the old bubblegum-type cards – with players’ details on the back along with a citizenship message from them,” says Scott. Some of the cards were handed out during the programme’s sessions while others, with the more high-profile players on, were given as rewards for returning worksheets and showing improved attitudes. The cards proved a big hit – so much so that they had to be locked away.
Each of the young people who complete the course are given a Tackle It wristband, the kudos of which received a massive boost when the Sunderland players wore them during a Premiership home game.
The data so far suggests that the initiative is succeeding, with questionnaires showing that awareness of racism, bullying and antisocial behaviour has increased by 71 per cent. But Scott isn’t resting on his laurels. He’s all too aware that “a snap shot intervention” may not be effective in the long term. “Exciting young people and getting their enthusiasm is great but you need to channel it into something else after the programme ends. That’s why we always try to link in other things.”
The team are also aware that in addition to reaching young people through schools, they also need to find a way of communicating with those who are disengaged and in the wider community. To this end, the £5,000 prize money will be put towards delivering programmes in youth clubs and other community venues.
Winning this award means a lot to Sunderland youth offending service and to the young people who have been involved, two of whom came to the awards ceremony in December. “They’d never been outside Sunderland before so they were really excited and impressed by the whole thing. The look on their faces when we won, you’d think we’d won the FA Cup,” says Scott.
Given that a celebratory presentation ceremony is planned for a match day at the Stadium of Light, that winning feeling will surely grow. Especially if Sunderland manage to win a few games!