A sense of direction for lost young people
Ricardo breaks off his hour-long football practice to tell me about his day. Having travelled halfway across London in a free minibus, the 16-year-old is spending the morning playing sport. In the afternoon he'll learn about science and how the muscles in the body work.
He much prefers it to the college where he was studying for A-levels. "It's more relaxed here and fun," he says. "I was stressed at college. I couldn't handle the workload and I wasn't studying the subjects I enjoyed. So I left and sat at home doing nothing. I'm really glad I came here."
He is now being taught by Let Me Play (LMP), an organisation that scoops up young people not in education, employment or training (Neets) and teaches them practical and academic skills outside a traditional learning environment. Ricardo is studying for a BTEC level 1 in sports and, although he might not realise it, the science he's picking up is actually cleverly embedded functional skills English and maths. By the time he's completed the 20-week-course, he'll be armed with certificates and be well-placed to follow his dream of working in sport.
LMP also runs courses in performing arts, health and beauty, catering and music production, and even has a football academy with regular matches and kit thrown in. Each course offers up to five qualifications, including ones in literacy and numeracy. Students attend five days a week; each day comprises two hours of vocational training and 90 minutes of classroom-based study. The structure changes to keep things fresh. "The focus is on fun," says LMP director Amy Lalla.
Earlier this year, a parliamentary report suggested that 148,000 16- to 18-year-olds were Neet. The actual number is probably much higher: about 100,000 people in the same age group remain unaccounted for by their local authorities. With further education funding being cut, this already-vulnerable group of outcasts is in danger of being forgotten entirely.
LMP started in 2003 and it works by taking up residence, free of charge, in centres that lie empty during the day. So I meet Ricardo in Edmonton, North London, in premises which, come the evening, house a youth club. There are seven other LMP centres in London and more across the South East. There are also residential sport camps in Loughborough.
The organisation caters for 16- to 23-year-olds including those with special educational needs and disabilities. Last year, more than 700 students completed LMP courses.
"The idea is to engage with young people who are Neet and move them into positive pathways," Lalla says. "The teaching is practical for a reason. When they start the course it's a struggle to get them to sit down for an hour to do written work. As it goes on, they find they can get more theory done."
The students also brush up on life skills such as teamwork, leadership and communication. Many come from challenging backgrounds. They can be living in hostels or pregnant, and some have a history of being in trouble with the police. Many have been excluded from schools and colleges.
Yet at LMP, more than 80 per cent of students complete the courses, with 95 per cent of those gaining at least five qualifications. Occasionally it doesn't work out, but staff are keen to ensure that all young people are given a second chance.
"We're as open and honest as possible," explains John Jatto, a sports tutor and functional skills teacher. "All we ask [of learners] is that they respect the facilities and the staff, and do the work. If they don't, we say, `Come back when you can'. We don't force them so they usually come back of their own free will."
With many of LMP's learners living independently, provision is tailored around their needs. Whereas prizes at the organisation's football tournament used to be a meal at Nando's, they're now more practical items such as irons and socks. For teens forced to fend for themselves, this is far more motivational than a meal out.
Celebrating success is important. "We tend to get young people who haven't had a great experience at school and haven't achieved at GCSE," Lalla explains. "They have low self-esteem and confidence - it's a shaky foundation on which to build."
Each student is invited to a graduation ceremony in the presence of businesses, community figureheads and even the local MP. Families are encouraged to attend but many do not. All learners are cheered on, however, by an audience of teachers, peers and strangers.
LMP recruits anywhere, from bus stops to park benches, although many young people are referred by outreach workers or through youth custody. Each student is enrolled in a local college. Mindful of the fact that the Neet cohort might struggle to flourish in a traditional institution, the colleges then sub-contract provision to LMP. They also pass on the funding.
This means that ultimately the colleges issue certificates to the LMP students and, later on, enrol many of them on their own higher-level courses.
But, for Lalla and her colleagues, challenges remain. Each student is entitled to only one 20-week course per academic year. And there is always the risk that, once the ink on the certificates is dry and the celebrations have died down, the learners will return to the job queue.
LMP is also keen to reach out to young people before they become Neet. It currently works with schoolchildren who need mentoring, catch-up work or help with socialising as they move from primary to secondary school. "By the time they reach Neet age, some things are so entrenched, we're fighting a losing battle," Lalla says.
But LMP's results speak for themselves. More than 75 per cent of its students go on to higher-level courses, apprenticeships or employment. Lalla is keen for LMP to help as many young people as possible. "There are so many young people who are lost," she says. "We need to find them and get them moving in the right direction."
For more information, visit www.letmeplay.co.uk