Football can boost inclusion of disavantaged young people

When the young people on Arsenal Football Club’s Positive Futures project watch England’s matches during the World Cup they know some of the players will have come from similar backgrounds to their own.

For football is still a largely workingclass sport with many of the professional players coming from the estates of Britain’s inner cities.

Despite this disadvantage, they have shown that, with hard work and skill, it is possible to be successful and wealthy. As a metaphor for life it is a powerful one. So perhaps it isn’t surprising that football in recent years has been used as a vehicle for engaging some hard-to-reach groups of young people.

World Cup fever and the glamour associated with those taking part makes them ever-more attractive role models, and some of the players’ domestic clubs are trying to harness that by reaching out to local children who have difficulties in their lives.

“Arsenal is a big thing for young local people. They look up to the players – they are their heroes,” says Freddie Hudson, Arsenal’s sports development officer.

Without that factor Hudson admits it would be more difficult to encourage interest in the projects the club runs.

Over the past five years, Arsenal has become involved in several national sports-based social inclusion schemes and has developed projects for disadvantaged children from the Islington area of London, where the club is based.

ne of these has been set up to help year 10 and 11 pupils who have become disengaged from mainstream schools for various reasons, including poor or non-attendance, but remain interested in sport. It offers an alternative full-time education for this group with the emphasis on developing life skills as much as ball skills.

Hudson says of the work on one particular initiative: “Through football exercises participants learn communication skills and how to encourage and tolerate each other. It’s a fairly basic strategy but ties in with their education goals.” What kicked off the idea for Hudson was the sight of young people hanging around the streets near the Highbury ground during school time. He approached education provider CEA Islington and specialist training organisation Springboard Islington about setting up a project that was an alternative to mainstream education.

Funding paid for a full-time staff member and education welfare officer to run classes between 10am and 3pm, five days a week. Now in its fifth year, the project has had some impressive results: this year, all students achieved an 80 per cent plus attendance record, while nine of the 14 on the project are entered for GCSE exams. Previous years’ students have gone on to college and enlist on the club’s own NVQ coaching programme.

Hudson says the first few weeks of the one-year course focus on building up their confidence through achievement. They undertake short courses in food hygiene, first aid and IT so that they have a sense of succeeding at something at an early stage.

“For some it is the first academic qualification they have achieved,” he adds. Using football as a starting point to address socially excluded young people is something the football authorities and government recognise. Both were integral to establishing and funding charitable organisation the Football Foundation with the lofty ambitions of strengthening links between football and the community and “to harness its potential as a force for good in society”. To date, it has handed out £40m to 378 projects that use football for social change.

A Football Foundation spokesperson says: “We want to use football as a hook to channel the energy of young people in a more positive direction, to get them off the streets and do something more productive.”

Through various programmes the foundation funds a range of projects: an afterschool club run by Lincoln City FC has  helped boost children’s education, while another, run by Northumberland Primary Care Trust, has tried to engage physically inactive girls and highlight the importance of being fit and healthy.

The Football Association has also used New Deal for Communities funding to employ 20 community development officers in the most deprived wards in England in an effort to reach communities not fully represented in football. “We believe passionately that football is for people from all backgrounds and social inclusion is central to all our plans in football development,” a spokesperson adds.

Both organisations have also invested  heavily in developing football among disability groups. The Football Foundation has allocated nearly £3m in grants to 39 football projects for disabled people. Last year  Wolverhampton Wanderers FC received £25,000 from the foundation and attracted contributions from Mencap and local businesses to fund a project to help young people with visual and hearing impairments and learning difficulties play football. It also runs and sponsors an adult team of men with hearing impairments.

Wolves community manager Andy Morgan says the funding pays for a disability officer two-and-a-half days a week to take coaching sessions with disabled groups at schools and at the club’s state-ofthe- art indoor training facilities.

“It’s become quite a big project for us,” Morgan says. “We did our research and saw that few facilities existed for these three groups. So we ran a pilot scheme at a local hearing impairment unit and now we coach 150 kids a week. We’d like to make it a fulltime post so we may expand it to include children with physical disabilities and look at other funding opportunities.”

Morgan says the club saw it as a chance to involve a group of disadvantaged children in a physical activity that others take for granted. “A football club is the central part in any community. I’m sure someone at the council has tried to get such provision up and running but not succeeded whereas the profile a club has attracts a lot more involvement.”

Mark Williams, Wolves’ disability officer, says in some schools children with hearing impairments are coached alongside those with learning difficulties. “They buddy up and learn to be sympathetic with each other’s  problems,” he says.

He adds the sessions help boost the children’s self-esteem and confidence. “The interaction brings them out of themselves.”

And it can also provide a career: oneof Williams’s coaching colleagues is blind and all of the visually impaired pupils are working towards their level 1 FA coaching badges.

These children – and thousands of others like them from disadvantaged backgrounds – are able to enjoy the fun that comes with the beautiful game for the first time. And a successful run for England during the World Cup will help spread the football gospel to an even wider audience.

Matthew Elcock, a 19-year-old from the Ashwell Park area of Wolverhampton, says joining the Midnight League project run by the city’s football club has helped turn his life around.

Two years ago, Elcock lacked direction and confidence and was unsure of his future. He has now passed his level 1 coaching badge and volunteers at the Midnight League, which combines classroom discussions on life issues with developing football skills and playing matches.

He says: “We start with a 30- minute talk by outside agencies, such as drug awareness, which helps to generate interest in social inclusion issues. We then have an hour playing football. I now coach the younger children two days a week.”

Elcock hopes to become a parttime coach at the club and make it part of his long-term future.“When I left school I was interested in coaching but didn’t think it was realistic. I didn’t fancy college and had no direction. I now have my coaching badge and my confidence has improved and I feel employable.

“I want to get more experience coaching, get my level 2 badge and make a career as a football coach.”


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