An award-winning project is revolutionising attitudes on a Sheffield housing estate. David Bocking meets the teenage volunteers
At the age of 15, "Sarah", a girl from Sheffield's once infamous Manor estate, found she'd chosen the wrong boyfriend. She was being bullied by the boy's previous girlfriend, who encouraged her classmates to help ruin Sarah's life.
"She was too scared to come to school," says Charlie Taylor, Sarah's friend and former fellow pupil from nearby City School.
"And when she did come, she had to arrive late and leave early. The bullying got that bad she said she wanted to commit suicide."
Sarah was chased off a bus and through the streets by dozens of fellow pupils, and suffered injuries after being hit by the bullies.
Even now, two years later, Charlie is reluctant to use her friend's real name. But Sarah's life has improved, she says: "She's got new friends now and she's doing right well at school. She's living a normal life, really."
Bullying at the school has been sharply reduced, and credit for that goes in part to Charlie and her colleagues from the City Angels, a small group of Manor teenagers who recently won the Philip Lawrence award for young people who help improve their communities by taking part in projects to counter crime, violence and racism.
"I've got a lot of pride out of setting up the City Angels and winning the award," says 17-year-old Bridie Pitsch, "and by seeing a lot of other people show a lot more confidence."
Kayley Shepherd says: "Some of us from the City Angels who were bullied still talk to the people who bullied us, but we know we've done better than them. It shows you're not letting it get to you. It's saying: 'Look where you got through your bullying.'"
The City Angels are now 16 and 17, and most have moved on to further education or apprenticeships. But they also give up their time to help younger children from the Manor, some of whom have been identified as potential bullies or victims of the future.
It all works by osmosis, says youth worker Donna Jones, who, along with colleagues from the Manor and Woodthorpe Youth Team, helped the City Angels get their project started. "The older ones can talk to the younger ones in a way that I can't, and the young ones get their status by being associated with older girls doing positive things rather than being associated with bullies."
Like most of the young people at the Manor youth centre, the City Angels started their path to respectability by being brought in off a street corner by Donna and her colleagues. The girls played games and worked on projects to build self-esteem and confidence and to develop risk-taking and decision-making.
After their friend Sarah became the prime victim of bullies, the City Angels group was formed, and Donna made contact with other agencies, including the police, youth and social services teams and the school, which was able to identify a group of pupils to take on an anti-bullying project through the citizenship curriculum and Every Child Matters programme.
Donna says: "A school has to have clear policies and procedures in action, and you have to look at a network of people, including families and family support groups working with these young people in the school and the community. And then you look to solve the problem from within by using the knowledge and resources and skills of young people like this." Around her, several of the City Angels are sitting at desks in the youth centre chatting to a rather noisy group of younger girls who are eating biscuits and working on their personal portfolios. (The portfolios are constantly accredited by centre staff in the lead up to a grand certificate night in a few weeks' time.) Donna points out that some of the younger girls have the potential to become bullies, by emulating older siblings who have achieved their status on the Manor streets through verbal or physical violence. But as an alternative, the 11-year-olds might look at the achievements of the City Angels and take a different path.
The City Angels have made presentations at other schools, demonstrating how to tackle bullying by building the confidence of the bullied and by talking to bullies about the reasons for their actions.
Charlie says: "Deep down, they're often nice people. They just need the confidence not to bully or pick on other people."
Bridie says: "I think people bully because they don't want to get bullied themselves. They think they've got to be hard and tough, but they're just putting a cover on family problems or the fact that they haven't got that strength at home."
The Manor is getting better, but it still has its problems, says Donna. The estate was described a few years ago as one of the country's worst. More than half its families are on benefit and several children at the youth club have parents who are drug addicts or in jail.
But the City Angels met with approval in the community, and are now training 14 and 15-year-olds to become the group's next generation.
Donna says: "It's about having a significant relationship between an older young person and a younger one. My philosophy is if you feel bad about yourself you'll feel bad about other people. But if you get in early, you can give young people an alternative route."
lFor further details on City Angels, contact Donna Jones Tel: 07766 754938 Email: email@example.com