Giving Coventry’s challenged youth a vital helping hand
If you’re a young person in need of support in Coventry, it’s fair to say that the Positive Youth Foundation has got your back.
The not-for-profit organisation has been supporting the city’s most challenged individuals since 1997 and their youth-work services and web of partners now form such an all-embracing safety net that the local authority recently commissioned them to re-design the entire city’s youth provision.
The Positive Youth Foundation’s approach isn’t easy to summarise, because almost every intervention is shaped to fit around the unique needs of each young person. There are almost as many solutions as there are young people in need of one. One example, however, offers a telling insight into some of their methods.
A group of young people were recently highlighted by local partners as being involved in street robberies in the city centre. PYF’s outreach team approached this group directly and asked for their views. What they got back was anger and frustration about their treatment by local agencies, including the police.
The PYF then arranged for an anonymous meeting between the cohort and a senior police officer. Views were exchanged and promises were made to speak to the local police officers involved. The young people’s voices were heard.
PYF’s youth workers then engaged those young people on some of its sport, training, education and employment programmes. They went on an intensive three-day residential course. They are now helping to design a new knife-crime project and thanks to partnerships with a network of local businesses, three of those young people are now in full-time employment.
“That’s a great example of identifying an area of need through local partners and meeting it with a bespoke solution,” says Rashid Bhayat, the PYF’s CEO and Founder.
“We put our reputation on the line by doing work like that, but because of our 20-year history and credibility in the city, we’re able to look the police in the eye and say: ‘Don’t let us down on this one.’ We use that status and relationship to achieve results through starting a dialogue.
“We exist to support those who are most challenged in society, but we don’t just do short-term bits of work and then leave – we are in it for the long haul. Everything we do – from our key partners right down to our volunteers on the ground – is about building long-term relationships.
“Engaging with those particular young people was a good example. You can’t just send some adults in and expect there to be instant synergy. We need to provide them with credible pathways out of the situation they’re in. Their engagement has to be voluntary; it has to be developed over time and done on the young people’s terms.
“We went in with a very neutral stance and said: ‘What can we do to help you get your message across to the police and local residents?’ We didn’t demonise them. We said we wanted their voices to be amplified and issues shared with the community. It’s an approach we find works really well.”
The PYF’s work has recently enjoyed a surge in profile outside the confines of Coventry thanks to their being honorary partners of the city’s winning 2021 UK City of Culture bid and the recent visit to their youth centre from the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
“It was a great experience and some of our young people have had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” says Bhayat. “But we know as a team that the core work goes beyond the news stories; in fact, the core work is the headline.”
That “core work” falls broadly into five strands:
- The Raising Aspirations Programme (RAP) – training, education and employment-focused outcomes
- Positive Futures – community-based services, such as sport, volunteering opportunities and targeted work around offending to re-engage young people with their communities
- Healthy Futures – works towards addressing health inequalities in the city
- ‘Involved’ – providing newly-arrived young people (refugees and asylum seekers) with a hub to learn about settling into the city and pathways into the core services
- ‘Changing Trax’ – using creative modules such as music, dance and performance opportunities to engage young people
Young people are either referred to the Foundation through official channels, such as social care teams, education, police or housing associations, or join via the Foundation’s own outreach teams, which have a high presence in the city and can identify those in need of further support.
The sporting activities in their ‘Positive Futures’ programme include football, cricket, boxing, mixed martial arts, basketball and Gaelic football. Sport is used purely as an engagement tool, with structured coaching or tournaments deliberately avoided.
“Once we start making it too competitive, it starts to shape the type of young person we get on the programme. It becomes more elite,” explains Bhayat. “For those who want that, we have pathways into providers with a more structured offering. But the focus of our organisation is not how good you are at sport or any activity, it’s about positive engagement.”
That informal and flexible approach applies across all of the Foundation’s work, which amounts to 95 sessions per week with over 2,500 young people per year.
“Whilst you need a framework, the content has to be driven by what’s presented on the day by the young people,” says Bhayat.”The people delivering have to be able to understand and recognise their behaviours, challenges and language, and respond appropriately. That’s very important for us as a sector.
“Our key messages are delivered almost without the young people realising it. Our staff are able to nurture a natural relationship, so they can initiate a conversation without it being a case of ‘let’s sit down and talk about mental health’. It has to be more casual than that. We provide the opportunity to talk about things in an environment where young people are agreeable to doing that.”
The Raising Aspirations Programme (RAP) is all delivered in-house five days a week, with young people referred in from pupil referral units and other agencies. Typical outcomes include qualifications such as the SQA Employability and Wellbeing Award, Sports Leaders or first aid. Then in the evenings there is music, dance and sport.
The daily timetable runs from 9am-9pm at venues across the city thanks to 23 full-time staff (four of whom were former young people on the project) and 40 volunteers (nearly all of whom are ex-service users).
For young people in need of extra support, there is a mentoring programme, either with a youth engagement officer or a peer mentor (provided their needs aren’t too intense and there are no safeguarding issues). Every young person is given the chance to have their say by joining the Positive Young Thinkers’ Youth Forum, which is visited by a guest speaker every month.
Bhayat started the initial voluntary group which has now become the Positive Youth Foundation aged 18. Now, 20 years on, it is so deeply embedded in Coventry that he says “you can’t talk about young people in this city without us being brought into the conversation”. With a huge network of services with youth work at their core, supported by a web of partners, they work tirelessly to ensure no young person is allowed to slip through the cracks.
The Alliance of Sport would like to thank the Positive Youth Foundation for being part of our Ministry of Justice Review of Sport in Criminal Justice.