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Changing troubled lives through sport in Hampshire

Active Communities Network (ACN) exemplifies sport’s power to change the lives of young people with serious and complex issues. 

A deep-rooted local support network built around sport can help rebuild fractured lives, re-directing those caught up in youth culture that can lead to a negative lifestyle or those facing difficulties because of the environment they live in.

That is exactly what ACN has provided since it was formed in 2006, when a collection of small groups and projects joined forces in South London. Since then it has expanded across the UK and Africa and supports local partners across five continents. 

28981114482_fe8c8e7961_k (1)They have a particularly strong presence in Hampshire, with programmes in both Leigh Park, Havant, and in the centre of Portsmouth. 

Based on the large Leigh Park estate, the project provides a huge range of weekly sports, arts and cultural activities alongside accredited training, personal and social development, as well as youth forums and targeted workshops that tackle relevant community issues. 

Football, basketball, boxing, cricket, tennis, archery and dance feature on the weekly timetable, but activities are built around individual needs and preferences, such as girls-only fitness classes, dance, spring board diving, sailing, photography and a range of cultural and creative opportunities. 

As with all the best Sport for Development organisations, these activities act as the ‘hook’ to engage with young people and form the basis of strong, enduring and trusting relationships. 

The process for each young person begins by turning up voluntarily or through a referral from local schools, Pupil Referral Units, Youth Offending Teams and Neighbourhood Policing teams, followed by consultation about each young person’s risk threshold, issues and safeguarding concerns. 

“We offer them all sorts of progressive pathways that bring confidence, self-esteem, resilience, physical and mental health benefits, new skills and employability,” says Julian Wadsworth MBE, ACN’s National Partnerships Manager and head of the projects in Havant and Portsmouth. 

“Because we’re so embedded and connected within the community, our relationships with local partners mean we can have all the information to hand about a young person. We’re able to find out what the major influences are that are putting them at risk and this supports our intervention pathways. 

“We also often get young people turning up where there are no immediate, major concerns; they’re just not involved in any positive social, physical or educational activities. Having an impact on their self-esteem at that point very often prevents problems further down the road, such as alcohol or drug misuse, mental health problems or dropping out of education and training altogether.” 

Wadsworth highlights the increasing breadth and complexity of young people’s issues, explaining that even those referred with an apparent low level of risk can have underlying problems which prove far more profound than initially thought. 

image001 (1)“As there’s less and less work being put into early intervention and prevention services due to austerity, we’re seeing young people presenting at what are supposed to be lower thresholds, but actually with really complex issues in their lives already. It may be a bit of anti-social behaviour that’s got them here, but there can be very serious trauma behind that. 

“Currently we are working very proactively and collaboratively with local police, the Hampshire Police and Crime Commissioner, Children Safeguarding Boards and other local authorities and partners to increase the awareness of the threat of criminal exploitation of children (county lines). 

“We also offer diversionary and youth development interventions to those young people who have triggered concerns, including children who are missing. That’s something personally I am hugely concerned about. 

“That’s where all our local partnerships become so crucial. Not all young people are going to have already-identified risk factors. It’s about relationship-building, picking up that information where we can, building a full picture, then shaping a nurturing and supportive framework around each individual with robust safeguarding practices.” 

Across the long-established Havant and more-recently-launched Portsmouth projects operating in Charles Dickens Wards (5% IMD and adjoining Council Wards) there are up to 400 -500 young people engaged weekly. 

As the offering is bespoke, there is no ‘typical’ pathway, but young people often progress from sports activities into a Level 1 coaching qualification or a Sports Leaders course, with opportunities to go into volunteering, further education or youth work, leisure and fitness industry roles – thanks to links with local employers. From April 2016-17, 8,683 hours of activities were delivered, 76 qualifications were gained and 95 volunteering opportunities were taken up in Leigh Park alone.

“Essentially, from day one we look to engage them in whatever makes them go ‘wow!'” says Wadsworth. 

“For example, we recently linked with Portsmouth University’s Faculty of Creative and Cultural Industries to set up a programme in coding and gaming sessions and advise on careers paths, as that’s what one particular group of disengaged male participants had an interest in. 

28465210334_a5ecfce68d_k (1)“We are also working with groups of young women aged 14-17 who are struggling within education or elected for home education and may be vulnerable to street situations. We’re supporting them through a range of activities, including watersports, training and employment skills. 

“We get lots of crossover between our activities too. A vulnerable and disengaged young person might hate sport and have self-image issues. We might start them on a photography course and invite them to take some pictures at the local skate park. That might spark their interest and suddenly a few months later they’ve come out of their shell and are asking to join the basketball club or do a Sports Leaders course.” 

Young people are fully consulted on how they want sessions and educational, awareness or development opportunities to be delivered. Home Office and OPCC funding has enabled ACN to deliver tailored workshops in direct response to local concerns, so staff have visited sheltered accommodation, hostels, schools, PRUs and youth clubs to raise awareness around risks including Child Sexual Exploitation and Criminal Exploitation of Children. 

“We don’t drop in, deliver, pick up our tools and leave. We build up relationships, engage them in our activities and monitor them all the way through,” says Wadsworth. 

“If someone doesn’t turn up for three weeks, we don’t forget them; we will ring their school and our community partners to see if they require further support, because anything could be happening in their lives,” Wadsworth explains. 

The project’s monitoring and evaluation system allows them to record a host of information on each individual, including education status, offences committed, participation and engagement, levels of confidence, self-esteem and physical activity and progression routes (volunteering, placements, qualifications, further education etc.). ACN’s own intelligence, combined with that of children’s services, mental health and police departments, ensures support can be built around each young person, in good times and bad. 

An additional progression route ACN offers is a place on its Youth Action Board, so that young people can have a say in what provision is delivered where and when, and which training and safety messages they need to deliver in the community. 

28464991954_c2327de3b0_k (1)Being part of Active Communities Network has immense benefits for the Hampshire operation and its sister projects in London, Manchester, Belfast, Ireland and South Africa. 

ACN has its own highly-developed training programme for participants, community and youth workers, with 1st4sport-accredited qualifications in developing and delivering community activities for at-risk youth. There are bespoke accredited and non-accredited qualifications to develop young people’s skills, resilience and employability. 

There is also a Sport for Development BSc (Hons) degree developed with the University of Gloucestershire, which trains its best delivery staff in impact reporting, strategic partnerships, Sport for Development, funding bids, academic ethos and trauma, so they are as fully equipped as possible in dealing with hard-to-reach groups. 

In addition, ACN is secretariat for the cross party Parliamentary Commission on Youth Violence, which brings with it support, profile and learning that they would not otherwise get as stand-alone local community organisations. 

Dealing with high-threshold issues on a daily basis is not easy work, but Active Communities Network’s strong and nurturing presence in troubled communities enables hundreds of vulnerable young people every year to achieve their full potential. 

The Alliance of Sport would like to thank Active Communities Network for being part of our Ministry of Justice Review of Sport in Criminal Justice.