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Sporting chance

Schools from across Europe are bringing youths who missed out on qualifications together to learn how to teach each other - and how to turn their lives around. Sarah Farley reports

It's a blazing hot day in September. On an outdoor tarmac court in Leeds a pair of French teenagers from the Toulouse second chance school are coaching a mixed group of their classmates through a warm up before they get stuck in to a lively game of football. But a couple of them hang back, lazing in the sun, moaning about various aches and pains.

"Motivating this group isn't easy," says Phil Riley, the adult coach who is here to teach the youngsters some of his skills."But some of them are keen and are trying to do their best."

The French youngsters are hard to get to know. They have all missed out on long periods of school, and all have had a mixture of difficulties - with their families, drug problems, truancy and crime.

Nineteen-year-old Nadia, one of the acting coaches, is typical. She won't talk about her past, other than to say she had "the usual" problems.

Nevertheless, Riley says she has done particularly well in her two football sessions, learning to project her voice, and taking command of the group with firm and clear requests.

Nadia even admits to being inspired. "I enjoy doing this," she says. "I hope that when I have my qualifications that I can get a job working with children."

All 70 participants at the four-day meeting of the European Association of Second Chance Schools (E2C) are 16 to 25-year-olds in danger of social exclusion or already experiencing it. They have dropped out of school and by-passed the qualifications they need to gain employment. Their horizons are often limited to their home towns.

After arriving from Italy, France, Sweden, Germany, Ireland and England, they have gathered today at the South Leeds Sports Stadium to learn a variety of organisational and communication skills, through playing and coaching each other in a range of sports. First, the youngsters are divided into groups that will practise coaching racket skills, athletics, netball, cricket or football.

The sessions are run by coaches from Leeds, who show the groups the basic skills of each sport - then demonstrate how to teach them to children or novices.

On the badminton courts, a group of youngsters from Spoleto, in northern Italy, is shown how to grip the rackets. They practise rallies with easy-to-control balls. Then they are told how to teach these skills themselves - and how they might deal with stragglers: those who turn up late wearing fashionable tops rather than sportswear.

The tutor accompanying the group, Stefania Rosati, watches carefully to see how her students cope. "I don't think they really know what to expect from this," she says. "They are enjoying the experience of coming to Leeds, as most haven't been abroad before, but I don't know how they will react to the organisation needed for the sports sessions. One of the best elements of this experience is the need for self-discipline." In the Italians'

second session, pairs of them are asked to coach the rest of their group for a short time, using the skills they have learned. The aim is to encourage tolerance and co-operation.

Leeds badminton coach Brian Wallwork is impressed by how the group support each other as the first pair devise and then begin their short time as their friends' coaches.

"Some are well co-ordinated and find it easy, while others are finding it hard, but they aren't getting impatient - and they are working together," he says.

But it isn't all so positive. The next pair of coaches are tested when one of the boys loses interest and wanders off, bouncing a ball. "He needs to be told to do what he is asked," says Wallwork. "And they need to pick up on the safety issues."

However, the two students leading the session do not react to their wayward classmate's behaviour; instead they ignore it in order to avoid a confrontation. But when Wallwork asks them about their strategy, they quickly come back with ideas about how it could have been tackled sensitively and effectively.

Meeting the other nationalities at the event is an important element of the programme. Although the groups do not mix nationality for the coaching sessions, over the four days in Leeds the sporting context gives the youngsters an opportunity to see how other cultures differ. This is most obvious with the group from Marseille, who are all Muslims from North African cultures. Their tutor, Phillipe Marro, feels the experience is very helpful to the girls especially, because they start off feeling isolated.

"They are discussing ideas with young people from other countries, such as how they dress differently, how it would be shameful for girls to wear what these other girls are wearing to play sport and around the town," says Phillipe. "It is opening their minds, and they are able to explain their beliefs to others. The experiences in the sport and the social times, such as our dancing session, are helping to break down barriers."

The youngsters are given diaries to record their thoughts and experiences every day. The comments reveal their enjoyment of the coaching and their meetings with other young people from different backgrounds but with similar problems. "All of us had challenges and barriers. I think we worked well as a team to overcome them," and,"I have learned there is more to sport than the obvious activities," are typical of the responses.

One Swedish tutor sums up the experience of many of his colleagues with a report on a girl who has gained a lot from the event: "Before, she had been quite self-centred and depressed. Over these days she has developed a great deal, relaxing, and attending all the activities with great spirit. She has lost the focus on herself and really enjoyed the meeting."

The British Council is holding a conference on using sport and international awareness to develop skills in 14 to 19-year-olds in London on November 18. For details, email:

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