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How sport can help tackle youth crime and violence

Opportunities for tackling youth crime and violence through sport and physical activity was the subject of the ninth meeting of the APPG on Sport and Physical Activity in the Criminal Justice System.

Marcellus Baz, founder of Nottingham School of Boxing and the Switch Up project (pictured above), was among the speakers in what was the group’s first ever hybrid meeting, taking place at the Houses of Parliament.

Marcellus outlined his own history of trauma, violence and crime in the troubled Meadows area of Nottingham. Groomed into a gang lifestyle, he became de-sensitised to violence and never left the house unarmed. He discovered boxing quite by chance after hiding in a gym whilst on the run from the police. Boxing coach Albert Tandy took him under his wing.

Although a rocky road still lay ahead of him at that point, the seeds of Nottingham School of Boxing and the Switch Up project that he later founded had been sown.

“I decided to create a safe environment for young people going through the same experiences as I did,” Marcellus said. “Boxing doesn’t discriminate. It is a very effective tool at engaging ‘hard-to-reach’ youth and it builds discipline, self-belief, resilience and commitment. It also gives young people a sense of family – something many have not experienced and could otherwise seek within gang culture.”

Switch Up combines the highly effective engagement tool of boxing with mentoring, counselling, personal development, employability training, volunteering and employment opportunities through a range of partners.

Marcellus’ programme model has been replicated in Denmark, Brazil and Norway. In 2016, he was awarded a British Empire medal by the Queen and named Unsung Hero at the BBC Sports Personality of the Year.

Marcellus stressed that interventions like his need time to take effect on each participant – something that does not always match up with short-term funding streams. “For some young people who have experienced significant trauma, it could take between six months and up to two or three years for them to build a relationship with a trusted adult and impact their lifestyle and behaviour. There is very little evidence of a lasting effect if the intervention is too short-term.”

Nikki Miles, Programmes Lead for Physical Activity and Sport, outlined the extensive early intervention programmes which have an incredible impact at her award-winning organisation, Positive Youth Foundation (PYF), in Coventry.

PYF has become the standard-bearer in youth work to such an extent that they now advise and support commissioners, funders, policy leads, other youth work organisations and corporate partners nationwide about policy, strategy and best practice.

“We know that crime and violence are the end product,” she said. “But there are a lot of things along the way that have got young people to that stage. Our aim is to try to challenge and support those factors early on in the process.”

PYF run a series of programmes all designed around the specific needs of each individual, who are referred by schools, social care and other agencies or engaged directly by PYF’s outreach teams. Sport (football, cricket, martial arts, boxing, basketball, Gaelic football, table tennis and more) plays a huge part as a tool to engage and connect with each young person, as well as music, dance, film-making, fashion, photography and volunteering programmes.

Positive Youth Foundation in action in Coventry

“The aim with each and every young person is to build long-term relationships, find out about their circumstances and challenges and offer them positive opportunities and pathways, with their ‘journey’ supported by mentors and role models,” said Nikki. Positive Futures, PYF’s longest-running programme, offers a packed timetable of after-school, evening and weekend provision suited to each young person’s needs. Sport sessions are used as engagement tools and follow-up interventions keep participants active, tackle crime and anti-social behaviour and build resilience.

The Raising Aspirations Programme (RAP) focuses on personal development, training, education and employment outcomes; Healthy Futures centres around improving health and wellbeing inequalities and the Involved project gives newly-arrived young people and their families (refugees and asylum seekers) a hub to integrate into their new community.

Stuart Felce, UK Director for Sport and Community Safety at StreetGames, offered an oversight of how the charity combines data from PCCs, VRUs and elsewhere with the views of community members to validate and support locally trusted organisations in their efforts to prevent youth crime and violence, enhance young people’s life chances and create sustainable change.

A StreetGames session in Plymouth

“The impact of locally trusted organisations on individuals and their communities is undervalued and needs to change,” said Stuart.

“In response to this, StreetGames has tried to standardise the way in which we build local partnerships and establish an anchor for where we can place this conversation to have a chance of sustainable change beyond the life cycle of the funding.

“By taking a forensic approach to assessing the available data and listening to what local communities are saying is affecting their lives, it becomes much harder to argue against the effectiveness of interventions. The organisations and data become robust enough that recommendations, objectives and plans can be built around them and all stakeholders can move forward with confidence that the needs of those communities are understood and action is underpinned by accurate information.

“We want to create more sports activity in more places and a trusted workforce with the competence and confidence to nurture more young people who might have experienced trauma and adverse childhood experiences.”

Professor Rosie Meek, author of the Ministry of Justice Review of Sport in Prisons in 2018, echoed the view that finding and empowering the “community champion” (figures like Marcellus who are well-known and respected in their local area) is key to the effectiveness of interventions.

“You can’t ‘helicopter in’ initiatives without trust from that community and individuals within it,” she said. “You need people who are known and embedded.”

Stuart from StreetGames concluded: “There may never be a better time to champion sport’s role in reducing youth crime and violence in communities. The Levelling Up agenda, Sporting Future report, the Beating Crime Plan and the recent £300m pledge to cut youth crime all provide momentum to convene sports stakeholders with other sectors and work out how policy can turn into strategy and manifest in action in communities.”