Fitness and fitting in

12th November 2004 at 00:00
Delegates at the second chance schools conference heard about two vastly different approaches to using sport to combat social exclusion - one Swedish and one Dutch.

At Norrkoping second chance school in Sweden, one teacher, Kjell Engstrand, is pioneering an approach that introduces young people to sport and its health benefits in such a way they don't realise they have started exercising.

"Most of our students have not done sport since they were nine or ten years old. They have no motivation to change, their lives are often chaotic and destructive," says Engstrand.

"They say they are too tired to do anything, even to get out of bed in the morning. So we start very gently, every day just beginning to move a little more. We tell them to walk when going downstairs, or get off a bus stop earlier on the way home."

After a while the students find they feel better for the exercise. They begin attending a gym for a simple individual programme. Soon, Engstrand has found, they start to gel in a group and ask to play team games together.

Then social interaction spills over into friendships outside the gym and they begin to feel they belong to a group.

"Eventually, they might start to ask about a permanent job so they can buy a car, or get married, or rent a flat," says Engstrand.

In the Borgerocco, an area of Antwerp with a large immigrant population, many Moroccan and under 20 years old, there is poor housing, high crime rates, no open spaces and sparse attendance at the struggling schools.

In 1995 Chris Peeters, a leader in a community youth programme, amalgamated three teams that had been playing indoor football just for fun.

"We decided to play for real. We began selecting for talent, not by positive discrimination, and stressed that anyone selected would have to work hard, be reliable and show respect for the team, the coach and the referee," says Peeters.

"At first we faced criticism because we did not make exceptions or allowances but gradually people saw it works."

The young people at the centre were told that the project was their own, that they were responsible for it working well.

The approach has paid off, both in terms of sporting success and of raising the confidence and awareness of young people in the Borgerocco.

The team has risen through the provincial division to being in the top four of the national league, bringing the problem of its players being poached by other, non-community based teams (the Borgerocco players are not paid).

With the success has come recognition in the neighbourhood that their young people can achieve and that they have gained respect. "Our national profile has helped the community look beyond itself," says Peeters.

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