Sport is being used to help at-risk pupils find their feet in school. Matthew Brown reports
Two years ago Danny, then aged 10, was a typical at-risk pupilI and then some. He was sent to the Stepping Stones pupil referral unit in Halifax with what Helen Hall, a social inclusion support worker at the school, describes as "severe emotional problems".
"He came here at first to give his previous teachers a break," she says.
"He was trashing classrooms, refusing to work, setting fire to buildings.
We had to restrain him regularly."
Sometimes Danny (not his real name) banged his head on the floor and put his fist through glass. He often ran away from home, or roamed the streets with gangs of older children, smashing windows and starting fires on people's doorsteps. "He was a fire-raiser, literally," says Julie Brooksbury, head of the PRU.
But Ms Brooksbury noticed that Danny was an avid footballer. "If he had a ball at his feet he was happy," she says. So she referred him to an after-school sports project set up as part of Positive Futures, the Government's national sport and social inclusion programme.
Within weeks, she noticed the difference. "After only a couple of sessions his self-esteem had lifted because he was doing something he liked," says Ms Brooksbury. "He went there thinking he wouldn't be any good and was told, 'Wow, Danny, you're fantastic'. For the first time he felt he was worth something."
The Calderdale Positive Futures project, run by a local charity called Lifeline, gave Danny a chance to play basketball and badminton and to try climbing. He played football in a national tournament, got a certificate for mountain biking, and won an award for trampolining, the first recognition he'd ever had for learning and achievement. Mostly, he got attention.
Now, Danny has put the gangs and fires behind him, and is back in mainstream education. "It's fantastic what's happened to him," says Ms Brooksbury. "When he came to us he couldn't read a word; now he can read enough to access the curriculum."
Not surprisingly, she and Ms Hall have nothing but praise for Positive Futures, and last term they were among a group of Halifax parents and teachers who greeted Home Office minister Caroline Flint when she launched the programme's first report at Halifax's Ridings school. The Ridings was dubbed the worst school in England in 1996 and derided by the media, but has now been turned around and is still improving.
Positive Futures uses sport to engage socially marginalised 10 to 17-year-olds from the most deprived areas: children at risk of exclusion from school and involvement in crime and drugs. The sport is merely a catalyst, the report explains, a way of building "mutual respect and trust", which allows coaches and youth workers to introduce personal development work and point pupils towards "alternative lifestyles".
"Positive Futures is about changing young people's perceptions of what the world is like, and what they can do with their lives," says Ms Flint. "It's about drugs awareness, education and training, and a whole raft of other issues, but the hook is sport."
The national programme funds 107 projects around England and Wales, which have worked with 35,000 young people in four years, and guided some 14,000 back into school, or towards training, jobs and sporting opportunities. The local partnerships are led by community schemes, youth programmes or local authorities, but, increasingly, schools and PRUs are playing an important role by referring "difficult" pupils to the schemes and providing facilities.
Anna White, headteacher at the Ridings, is in no doubt about the influence of the Calderdale project on her most disengaged pupils. "You can see the difference in them," she says. "They begin to feel more confident, a bit more chilled out with life. These are vulnerable youngsters whose lives are stressful and unstable a lot of the time. It gives them breathing space."
It does the same for parents. Three of Kevin Greenwood's children attend the Positive Futures sessions in the Ridings' sports hall. "It is a massive comfort to us to know they're in a positive environment and not hanging around on street corners," he says. "And it's made a lot of difference to their attitudes to school; they are trying more."
Positive Futures is described as a "relationship strategy". The sport is not a diversionary activity, a distraction from the streets, but a means for pupils to engage positively with adults, sometimes for the first time.
Colette Jones, co-ordinator of the Ridings' "alternative programmes" centre, explains that the relationship between the children and Lifeline worker Tahir Khan, known to everyone as Sid, is crucial. "If you walk around school with Sid you can see their eyes light up; they're really pleased to see him," she says. "He's got that special relationship with them through the sports work that we as teachers can't have."
Ms White learned about Positive Futures by chance, when she overheard her pupils talking excitedly about playing sport with Sid. But she now sees it as an integral part of improving her school. "It's not just a bolt-on," she says. "It's one of a series of measures we use to help these children.
"It's part of a slow process. This is no miracle cure, and it doesn't turn children around overnight. But it definitely helps."
Just ask Danny.
More information about Positive Futures at www.positivefutures.gov.uk