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Levelling the Playing Field ‘inspires’ APPG attendees

The ground-breaking Levelling the Playing Field project was the subject of the 10th meeting of the APPG on Sport and Physical Activity in the Criminal Justice System. 

Levelling the Playing Field (LtPF) is a £1.7m initiative funded by the London Marathon Charitable Trust which uses the power of sport and physical activity to engage and improve health and life outcomes for ethnically diverse children, who are more likely to enter, or who are already involved with, the Criminal Justice System. 

Launched in 2020 and co-managed by the Alliance of Sport and Youth Justice Board, LtPF brings together over 100 strategic and specialist delivery partners in four pilot areas – London, the West Midlands, South Yorkshire and Gwent. 

The project increases the capacity of its delivery partners who work directly with children in ethnically diverse communities, maximises their frontline impact, helps share learning across the network and builds a collective evidence base of good practice to advance future policy, practice and investment. 

Ethnically diverse children are more likely to be arrested, more likely to receive a formal sentence and make up over half the population of youth custody. The reasons for this over-representation are complex but often come down to lack of opportunities. Levelling the Playing Field offers these opportunities for ethnically diverse children to engage in activities that promote physical and mental wellbeing, benefit from mentoring, gain qualifications and access positive role models. 

Keith Fraser, Chair of the Youth Justice Board and LtPF’s Steering Group, told the APPG meeting at the Houses of Parliament that the project has “massive potential” to impact on the issue of over-representation nationally. 

“A project on this scale has never been attempted before – it is unprecedented,” he said. “We have gained a lot of support from the sport and criminal justice sectors and it has already brought statutory and non-statutory partners together to effect really positive change. 

“When we meet the needs of children and provide support and opportunities, they flourish. It’s when we fail to do that that we see children more easily drawn into offending behaviour.” 

Dr Hannah Hammond, Research Fellow from the University of Birmingham, leads the research team conducting independent monitoring and evaluation of LtPF. She addressed questions from attendees at the APPG meeting – including Baroness Brady CBE, member of the House of Lords, CEO of West Ham United and Trustee of the Twinning Project

“We know sport and physical activity is good for physical and psychological wellbeing, but sport alone is not enough to divert children and young people from the justice system,” said Dr Hammond. 

“What Levelling the Playing Field has done very successfully is provide a platform for community sport providers to partner with other local agencies and create pathways for ethnically diverse children and young people away from crime and anti-social behaviour. It gives children agency, a sense of belonging and support towards positive outcomes. 

“Creating partnerships in each of the four delivery areas has been another key outcome of the project so far. It gives stakeholders a shared agenda which gets them all around the table – in many cases discussing individual children and what can be done to support their vulnerabilities.” 

Nowhere is LtPF’s partnership model better exemplified than in Newport, South Wales. Martine Smith (featured in main picture) represented LtPF’s Newport partnership at the APPG meeting. She is Equity Lead at Maindee Primary School, based in a hugely diverse inner-city area, and plays a key role in supporting local children through the vehicle of sport and physical activity. 

“Ours is a multi-agency approach – we’re all around the table for these children,” she explained. “It’s a true partnership. We call it our shield. Levelling the Playing Field is what has brought us all together.” 

The Newport partnership brings together LtPF delivery partners Positive Futures and Community Youth Project, Newport Youth Justice, Maindee Primary School and other agencies. Together they give local ethnically diverse children ‘safe places and safe faces’ – weekly sports sessions in the community led by mentors and role models and, crucially, a Youth Justice worker who has become a trusted and regular figure in the participants’ lives. 

This protective ‘family’ are relentless in increasing children’s access to opportunities and breaking down barriers, as well as proactively addressing local issues and building relationships with families. 

“We show up consistently and all send the message that we’re there for them and in this together,” said Martine. “At any time, I can contact other members of the partnership and say, ‘This young person needs help, let’s make a plan.’ 

“Young people from our community used to feel marginalised and distrustful. Now because of the project, they have hope. They’re active and engaged, part of mentoring programmes and going to college. It’s working.” 

APPG Chair Sir Clive Efford MP called the project “inspiring” and highlighted the potential savings for the justice system of such effective early prevention and diversionary projects which use sport and physical activity to inspire change. 

The full evaluation of Levelling the Playing Field’s initial three-year funding phase will be published in summer 2023, but an interim report was released in October and is available here