A noisy jamming session with a group of Asian musicians and dancers might seem an unlikely way of improving the decision-making, problem-solving, teamwork and communication skills of 60 teenagers. But the young people from three schools in West Sussex taking part are involved in Life Routes, a programme managed by the National Children’s Bureau which aims to do exactly that.
Life Routes was launched in the UK in 2000 to build vulnerable teenagers’ life skills through a range of different activities and is funded by Nokia as part of a global youth initiative. A second phase was launched in 2004 to underpin the five outcomes of the Children Act. The programme is now being run in the four areas of the country with the highest indices of deprivation – London and the South East, Yorkshire and the Humber, the North East, and the North West – with the aim of reaching 4,000 young people by 2010. A regional co-ordinator in each area works with local youth workers to bring projects to life.
In West Sussex, Life Routes has linked up with a local music project and, with the help of a band called Kissmet, the teenagers are composing a piece of music and choreographing a dance routine which they will perform at a local theatre in April.
Sophie Wood, Life Routes programme manager, says all these activities are helping the young people involved to develop life skills. “Life skills – such as decision-making and problem-solving – are the basic building blocks that underpin the Every Child Matters agenda. Whether it be to go to university or get a job, these basic skills give young people the confidence to make informed choices.
“All young people have the potential to do well,” Wood adds. “This is about unlocking that potential. Young people often do not realise they have important life skills. We thought that this was an area not being addressed.”
A crucial part of Life Routes is its accreditation and evaluation. On completion of the programme, the participants receive a certificate accredited by Asdan, an awards body recognised by employers and colleges. The participants also evaluate their progress by filling out a detailed questionnaire.
Tara Cresswell, regional co-ordinator for London and the South East, agrees that the evaluation and accreditation is what makes Life Routes unique. “This isn’t about coming to a music workshop and just having a laugh. We assess their progression in acquiring life skills and help them reflect on what they have learned. It’s incredibly empowering,” she says.
Wood says that Life Routes offers a strong framework, while giving young people flexibility to design a programme for themselves. There is no blueprint one project in Halifax involved a group of young people attempting to break a world record for making the longest peace flag and another took place on a canal boat.
“Some youth programmes can be quite unstructured – young people come in and have a free two hours and then go home again. Life Routes provides structure and enhances the process of personal, social and emotional development.”
Keen to spread the work of Life Routes in the four regions. Woods adds: “If a practitioner wants to run a Life Routes programme we will support them. The structure we have in place ensures the reflection by young people which helps them to realise the skills they have developed and how to transfer them into other areas of their life.”
Research with 500 participants, conducted by NCB, found that 85% of young people involved in Life Routes said their life skills had improved since the programme began. It also found that the programme had the most impact on those who were the most vulnerable.
Cresswell agrees that the most vulnerable are the ones who have the most to gain. Another programme she has developed as part of Life Routes works with young people in local authority care and aims to address confrontational behaviour and improve communication skills through the use of percussion instruments. The group communicate solely through their instruments with the aim of producing a group sound.
One of the participants said at the final evaluation: “I don’t really listen to what people say unless it bothers me. But when we had to get the rhythm right, I knew if didn’t listen I wouldn’t get it right and then I wouldn’t be part of the group and I’d look stupid. When we talked after, I realised I did listen and I joined in and it sounded really good.”
This article appeared in the 6 March issue under the headline “Songs in the key of life”