Play with words

Young people who offend or who are at risk of offending are often socially excluded, badly educated and have poor health and communication skills. The latter is not often tackled head-on and yet not being able to say what you want to say in the right way or understand what somebody else is saying can be frustrating to the point of violence.

However, Salford youth offending team has something to say about this: in an inspired piece of innovation it has appointed a speech and language therapist, Gillian McCarthy.

She says: “The young people we work with have basic conversation skills, but don’t have the higher level of skills: for example, if the conversation ran dry -Êthey wouldn’t necessarily know how to move it on.”

But the innovation hasn’t stopped with the appointment. McCarthy has been exploring more engaging ways of working with young people. “Within language therapy we look at things like narrative and storytelling ability in quite a structured way,” she says. “But I wanted to look at things more functionally. We have a good relationship with the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester and it seemed that the theatre would be a good way of pulling out all the skills young people need.”

With health authority funding McCarthy secured 20 tickets for Port, a play by Simon Stephens, who had been the writer-in-residence at the theatre. “It’s about a 15-year-old girl growing up in Stockport [the writer’s hometown] from a disaffected background, her life was in ruins, she couldn’t see any future for herself. We were told by the Exchange that this would be a really good play for young people to watch -Êlots of swearing and all that type of thing that they would enjoy.”

Although only six young people went to Port, it was the following day that the real benefits occurred when Stephens, with five actors in tow, held a play-writing workshop with the young people.

He coached them to write their scripts in pairs, which the actors then brought to life. “The actors were great, funny and as they had been on television motivated the young people even more,” says McCarthy.

It was clearly good for the young people to act out rather than act-up. As one said: “I enjoyed working with those famous people. I would like to do it again soon!” Another declared: “I thought it was gonna be crap. But it was mint.”

McCarthy says: “They thought they were just enjoying themselves but they were also developing a lot of conversational skills.”

McCarthy is hoping to expand on this approach: fun, different and interesting activities that have the knock-on effect of developing language skills in a normal setting without the young people necessarily realising that purpose.

Next McCarthy wants to sit down with a stand-up comedian. She’s working on the idea of inviting a comedy performer to work with the young people. “Quite often the humour revolves around a narrative -Êabout being able to get all the components of a story into a dialogue to make it funny.” 

For more information contact Gillian McCarthy 0161 832 5382, e-mail 


Scheme: Theatre as speech therapy for young people

Location: Salford, Greater Manchester

Staffing: Within staff time

Inspiration: To engage young people in improving communication skills

Cost: £150 for theatre tickets and transport. The play workshop was free.

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