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Community partnerships the key for Sports Connect

Sports Connect’s work with Novus and HMPPS at Cookham Wood YOI in Kent offers an exciting blueprint for how sport and community partnerships can positively impact on reoffending. 

Using the power of sport and education programmes to engage with young people while they’re inside, Sports Connect ensure their positive impact is sustained post-release through a strong network of connections in the community. 

Leading up to a young person’s release, Sports Connect work closely with their community partners to ensure each individual has a bespoke education package and local support system in place to improve their life chances and support their desistance from crime on the outside. 

Sports Connect

Co-Director Simon Hodge said: “Because we’ve done intervention work with a young person inside Cookham Wood and created an educational pathway for them, we know them well and are ideally placed to coordinate their successful resettlement and transition back into the community. 

“With the help of community partners, we can set them up for life and reduce that risk of reoffending which as we all know is currently unacceptably high.” 

Simon and fellow director William Lee were well-known at Cookham Wood having delivered successful projects there when they worked for Charlton Athletic Community Trust. 

Initially, Sports Connect delivered sport-based education in the prison targeted specifically at conflict resolution. It proved to be ground-breaking, disproving some initial scepticism by uniting young residents who were on keep-apart lists through the power of sport. 

Since 2018, they have expanded that work, joining up the process of sport-based engagement and education in prison with successful resettlement into the community. 

Sports Connect

The resettlement process often starts months before releaseOne Cookham Wood resident, for example, is currently being linked up with an external partner with whom he’ll undertake a gym instructor qualification once he’s released. Sports Connect bring that partner into the jail to meet the boy so he knows the face, has an initial outline of the course’s content and his transition into that opportunity therefore becomes smooth. Once he’s through the gate and on the course, Sports Connect staff visit him once he’s settled in. 

“Our engagement with that boy began by simply having a game of head tennis and an informal discussion on the landing,” explains William. “We were then invited into a meeting with the health and wellbeing team and together we drew up a unique resettlement plan with his health and wellbeing case worker and external partners.” 

William continued: “We work very much on a case-by-case basis, depending on a young person’s needs, the direction they’re heading in and how we can help them. Sport is simply a tool that helps us engage them in something. 

“The key part for us is not being too precious, understanding we’re not going to meet every single young person’s needs and that often the most important role we can play is connecting them with an opportunity that someone else can deliver and can make a huge difference to their future.”  

There is potential to work alongside Novus to expand their model to other young offenders’ institutions – as well as the prospect of linking in with the Alliance of Sport’s Levelling the Playing Field project. 

The project – which aims to increase participation in sport and physical activity among ethnically diverse children and reduce disproportionality in the Youth Justice System – is delivered through a large network of local delivery partners. That network includes several organisations in south-east London – just a stone’s throw from Cookham Wood in Kent – who are perfectly suited to engage the boys in fulfilling sport and physical activity and support their desistance from crime. 

The Alliance of Sport’s Chief Operating Officer, Justin Coleman, said: “What Sports Connect have established is perfect because it is precisely what the Criminal Justice System needs to be doing much more of. 

“Often it’s not possible for stakeholders within the Criminal Justice System to extend their support for an individual beyond the gate or community licences. However, if the secure estate works with partners like Sports Connect and its vibrant lifelong sports, education and employment networks, it enhances the whole relationship with the individual. 

This in turn, connects the individuals to positive activity in a proactive community. The contact and support they receive will then be lifelong and extend beyond the court order. All the evidence tells us that is a critical part of successful rehabilitation.” 

Sports Connect
Sports Connect ambassador, ex-professional footballer Osei Sankofa, outside Cookham Wood YOI 

Tapping into the Alliance of Sport’s large network of practitioners within sport and criminal justice will greatly expand the range of potential partners and opportunities that Sports Connect can offer its beneficiaries. 

James Thomas, Sport and Enrichment Coordinator at Novus, said: “Sports Connect really are an example of best practice for the rest of the prison estate. There is rich potential to expand and adapt the work they’re doing in Kent to other areas of the sector. 

Karen Baker, Novus’s Head of Education, added: “Having known Simon, Adam and William from other projects and working in further education, I was keen for them to work with Cookham Wood as part of the YCS reform agenda. 

“This was an opportunity to bring together the fantastic work that happens through the Physical Education Instructors on site and with our Novus teachers, to give access to opportunities to education, work and training on resettlement. I am delighted with how the collaboration has developed and changed over time, especially in response to the pandemic.” 

Sports Connect

Co-founders Simon, Adam and William have backgrounds in teaching, community work and elite football coachingAdam previously worked with Crystal Palace winger Wilfried Zaha and Simon worked with current Premier League players Karlan Grant and Ezri Konsa at Charlton Athletics academy. Having known each other for a long time, they decided to take the plunge and start the company together three years ago. 

“Having each worked for large educational institutions before and experiencing certain frustrations, we can now be creative, flexible and really bang the drum for the benefits of partnership work,” says William. “Covid-19 has definitely been a hindrance, and we still have a long way to go, but we believe the pathway we’re on is very interesting and has bags of potential.” 

For more information about Sports Connect, head to their website or follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

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