Positive futures for young offenders

A scheme in a deprived part of London is giving young people a sense of purpose by equipping them with boxing gloves and a trainer, writes David Cowan. But such projects can best be sustained by proper evaluation and integration with mainstream social work

London has some of the richest and most deprived boroughs in the UK.(1) And Lambeth and Southwark are among the most deprived of these, despite having pockets of affluence. As such they have among the worst crime rates in the country. To address these the Home Office’s drugs strategy directorate launched the Positive Futures social inclusion programme aimed at disadvantaged young people who live in neighbourhoods identified as among the 20 per cent most deprived in the country.(2)

Specifically, interventions are targeted at the 50 most vulnerable and at-risk young people in these areas. Positive Futures seeks to tackle young people’s substance misuse, increase physical activity and limit offending behaviour by providing opportunities within a supportive and culturally familiar environment. By aiming to help young people feel socially included, it offers an alternative to the perceived hopelessness associated with drug use and crime. Young people are armed with more understanding about the harmful effects of drugs and are helped to develop the knowledge and skills required to lead a healthy lifestyle. Front-line social care workers play a critical role in the success of these projects because of their ability to act as “cultural intermediaries” and engage with young people who have not been subject to, or co-operated with, other interventions.

Positive Futures focuses on the involvement of local lead agencies and the development of strong partnerships to sustain innovative projects. One local agency involved in delivering the programme in Lambeth and Southwark is YourStory. Specialist work undertaken by the project includes facilitating self-development through sport, mentoring, facilitating drug awareness, working with young offenders and homeless people, issues relating to teenage pregnancy, development of self-awareness relating to health, emotional management; communication and trust.

YourStory has developed working partnerships with a multitude of organisations including the Prince’s Trust, Healthier Schools Partnership, Lambeth asylum seekers team, Lambeth Youth Inclusion Programme, Lambeth Teenage Pregnancy, the Metropolitan Police and London South Bank University.

One of the most innovative of these partnerships is a collaboration with another local community resource, Fitzroy Lodge Boxing Club. Positive Futures funding pays for a boxing coach to instruct young people referred by YourStory. Through the disciplined environment that boxing training provides, young people acquire self-confidence, respect, focus, a sense of purpose, self-direction, achievement, empowerment and feelings of well-being. On entering the club young people realise that good manners and respect to others should not be confused with weakness. Indeed, everyone, whether they be a novice or a seasoned fighter, receives the same respect and attention from the coaches.

As one young person said: “I started going to the boxing club about two months ago with YourStory. I was a bit daunted as everyone seemed really fit.

“The coaches were friendly, they made me feel at ease and I didn’t feel stupid, even though I couldn’t do half of it. I never realised how skilful it was and how much you have to learn. Other boxers would stop and help me.

“Everyone’s so quiet and peaceful they seem content. I thought it would be full of egos but it was totally different. Everyone spoke to each other and they came from all walks of life. It was a positive experience and I couldn’t wait to go back. I felt brilliant in myself, I started eating better and I was taking care of myself, drinking water and eating fruit. Boxing keeps me fit and happy and I’m now setting small goals for myself to improve, both at boxing and looking for a job. It has changed my life. It’s the best programme I have done; they really support me and I believe in myself and what I can do in the future.”

Another young person said: “Boxing has changed my life. It keeps me focused, motivated and confident. It gives me something to build my day around while I’m looking at my future. Without the club I would either be in jail or hanging around with my mates smoking weed. I can now see a future for the first time in my life. I am enrolling in full-time education for September and I’m doing a coaching course which will lead to coaching work with kids from my estate.”

All this suggests such innovative projects keep young people away from problematic drug use and associated crime and channel them towards educational and employment opportunities. After completing the YourStory scheme, of which boxing now comprises an important cornerstone, young people are asked to share their plans for their future. Significantly, many expressed interest in careers in the health and social care professions, so could sustain the beneficial impact on the community.

These types of projects have been criticised for a lack of built-in processes for long-term evaluation of their impact on levels of crime or drug use and lack of any statistically significant quantitative evidence of effectiveness.(3) These criticisms come amid the perception that, traditionally, social workers have not undertaken or commissioned research and have not informed their practice with research findings.4 But it should be noted that many projects have not been afforded the research capacity to do so. They have involved relatively small numbers of participants and are often funded only in the short term.

In order for Positive Futures projects to succeed, they must not only be supported by a strong local partnership, but be able to show their effectiveness through evaluation. Also, such projects are likely to have more chance of sustainability if they are recognised by, and better integrated with, mainstream social work at all levels of practice. The argument for sustaining such innovative projects in the long term would be enhanced through collaboration between Positive Futures projects and local research-active universities, such as London South Bank University, that educate social workers. This would lend much-needed expertise in developing ways to generate evidence to evaluate the effectiveness of the projects and contribute to the central Positive Futures monitoring and evaluation framework.

Recent encouraging signs of support for such research are the establishment of the Social Care Institute for Excellence, and indication from the Economic and Social Research Council that it will provide greater investment in funding social work research. This could generate quantitative and qualitative evidence to support the argument that these types of projects actually work.

David Cowan is a reader in the centre for leadership and practicve innovation, faculty of health and social care at London South Bank University. His research interests include improving approaches to the management of problematic alcohol and drug use and the impact of culture on health and social care.

Training and learning
The author has provided questions about this article to guide discussion in teams. These can be viewed at www.communitycare.co.uk/prtl and individuals’ learning from the discussion can be registered on a free, password-protected training log held on the site. This is a service from Community Care for all GSCC-registered professionals.

The government’s Positive Futures social inclusion programme seeks to positively influence young people’s offending behaviour. It focuses on effective local partnerships, building mutual respect and trust, initially through sport, leading to educational and employment opportunities. One agency has developed an intervention which includes boxing training.

(1) London Divided: Income Inequality and Poverty in the Capital, Greater London Authority, 2002
(2) Positive Futures, Cul-de-sacs and Gateways – Understanding the Positive Futures Approach, Home Office, 2003
(3) A Smith, I Waddington, “Using sport in the community schemes to tackle crime and drug use among young people: some policy issues and problems”, European Physical Education Review, 10 (3), pp279-298, 2004
(4) A Everitt, “Research and development in social work”, in R Adams, L Dominelli, M Payne (eds), Social Work, Themes, Issues and Critical Debates, Palgrave, in association with The Open University, 2002

Further information
Fitzroy Lodge Boxing Club
Positive Futures

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