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Youth Justice Sport Fund ‘reached communities who needed it most’

The APPG on Sport and Physical Activity in the Criminal Justice System held its latest meeting on 28 June to review the Ministry of Justice’s Youth Justice Sport Fund. It found that the project’s successes were many and varied.

The Youth Justice Sport Fund, which ran from November 2022 to March 2023, was initiated to support vulnerable 10-17-year-olds who are at risk of involvement in crime, anti-social behaviour and serious violence, using the vehicle of sport and physical activity.

It was also intended to build capacity for local sports organisations to work more effectively with criminal justice partners such as youth justice services, police, PCCs and VRUs.

The project added further proof of the value and credibility of ‘doorstep sport’ – when delivered alongside so-called ‘sport plus’ services like mentoring, one-to-one support, volunteering, education and food – in preventing youth crime and serious violence.

The Fund – part of the government’s wider £300m investment into youth justice services over the next three years – was managed by StreetGames, with support from the Alliance of Sport in Criminal Justice and the Sport for Development Coalition.

It supported 220 voluntary and community sport organisations (selected from 475 applications after 1,718 initial expressions of interest) who each received a share of the £5m fund to carry out targeted work with at-risk young people.

Charlotte Higgins, Head of Early Intervention, Prevention and Community Justice at the Ministry of Justice, firstly explained why the Fund had been launched: “Sport is increasingly recognised as having an important role in prevention and early intervention, partly as a simple diversionary principle but also as a vehicle that leads young people away from the justice system and towards activities that can help them build strengths and a pro-social identity.

“Previously we have been involved in conversations around the value of sport taking place in custody. For us, this project was a slightly new exploration in the early intervention space and it has been really productive.”

The AGM meeting heard how the initiative was underpinned by a Theory of Change, developed by Loughborough University, which set out a framework for sport-based interventions aimed at reducing crime, violence and anti-social behaviour.

Members also heard that:

· 77 of the 220 participating organisations had an annual turnover of less than £100,000

· 82% of young people who took part were from the 40% most deprived areas

· 88% of organisations worked with young people who had been excluded from school or college

· 76% of organisations worked with young people who have a mental health condition

As Mark Lawrie, CEO of StreetGames, commented: “In some funding rounds, the money ends up going to the big organisations with their own fundraising teams because they have the capacity and track record.

“But we and the Ministry of Justice were really clear that we wanted to target organisations on the frontline of community provision. It’s clear from the data that the funding reached right into the communities that needed it most.”

Of the 7,832 young people who took part, 48% were in the 13-15 age range, traditionally the bracket of young people who typically withdraw from sport participation. This was seen as another positive element of the project’s impact.

Data showed that 63% of the hours delivered by participating organisations were dedicated to mentoring and other ‘sport plus’ activities that help delivery staff build a strong rapport with young people and accelerate their personal development and desistance from crime. There was also a good balance of ethnicities and referral bodies, both formal (education, justice, police etc) and informal (family, friends and self-referrals).

“For me, this has been the most astonishing monitoring, evaluation and learning programme ever,” stated Mark. “It wasn’t about trying something new. It was about using the expertise of organisations that are specialists in this space to further support vulnerable children and young people.”

An unexpected impact of the Fund came through its data on non-attendance. Young people were asked their reasons for non-attendance, enabling the organisations to proactively make changes to meet that feedback; for example, by changing the group dynamics, activities, supporting with transport, changing time or venue or adding staff.

“The delivery organisations were given the flexibility, autonomy and trust to come up with the right solutions,” said Mark. “It was designed at a local level within the parameters of the Theory of Change. That was one of the characteristics which made the programme successful.”

The other element to the initiative was capacity-building through training volunteers and young people as well as creating connections between the frontline local delivery organisations and youth justice partners. StreetGames hosted regional engagement events and workshops and held a national conference at the end of the funding round in March. “We created space for the organisations to be on the journey together,” commented Mark.

The obvious limitation to the fund was its timeframe, spanning as it did only five months. Mark acknowledged concerns around sustainability and added that many organisations were connected with other sources of funding. He added that the government’s wider £56.5m Turnaround programme, which lasts until March 2025, will feature further opportunities for funding to go towards sport-based initiatives.

He added: “Strategically, the fund has proved that there are many organisations ready and well-equipped to work with at-risk children and young people and impact positively on harder outcomes.

“This project is another brick in the wall of evidence and will maintain the impetus around learning in this area, as well as continue the push to influence future policy.”