Partners in Grimethorpe

9th December 1994 at 00:00
Secondary pupils in a beleaguered Yorkshire mining village have pushed to open a youth centre.

What do your pupils do after school? Watch TV? Play computer games? When school's out in Grimethorpe, West Yorkshire, the kids hang around on street corners. There is no point in staying indoors.

The village's back-to-back brick terraces are cramped accommodation for the large families that are the norm. And the chances are that Dad is out of work and has been home all day - the pit closure last year shattered the spirit of a long-established mining community and created 40 per cent unemployment.

At the local comprehensive, Willowgarth High School, staff conducted a survey asking Grimethorpe pupils what they did in their spare time. "We found that very little of what they did was constructively organised," says teacher Kath Goward.

Willowgarth has an after-school club for children to do homework but the school also serves other mining villages and is about a mile from Grimethorpe up a hill. According to Ms Goward it is in quite a lonely area - "what the children needed was some sort of facility that was more central to their village".

Ms Goward's concerns were echoed by the National Association for the Resettlement of Offenders which was the only agency working in the village. They could see at first hand how Willowgarth youngsters might drift into a life of crime.

NACRO is based in a converted house on the village's "seaside" estate where street names like Margate and Cromer recall happier times when a bucket and spade holiday was the least a miner's family could afford. Now, though, the estate is crime-ridden. Three months ago, police raided houses to make arrests and recover stolen property. Then, as a backlash, gangs of youths set fire to the houses of people they thought had informed to the police. Other houses were boarded up as families fled the area.

More than ever before the village needs a youth centre and a place to restore community spirit. And thanks to a special relationship that has developed between the school, NACRO and construction company Costain, it is about to happen.

Offficially opened last month the centre is called GAZ - short for Grimethorpe Activity Zone - and is the result of three years effort by teachers, youth workers, Costain staff and the children themselves. Joanne Ward, a Year 11 pupil at Willowgarth says: "We didn't think it'd ever happen. We'd been promised things in the past but let down."

The project, set in the centre of Grimethorpe contains a large room for parties and discos, a snack bar, a quiet room for homework, a practical room for workshop activities and a counselling room. Already it has won recognition by gaining the Lord Mayor of London's Dragon Award for business involvement in the community.

Costain had good reasons for investing in the local community having signed a 10-year deal with Barnsley Metropolitan Borough Council to form the Barnsley Partnership - a private sectorlocal authority initiative to build new offices, warehouses and factories. Up to 5,000 jobs may be created within the decade.

Creating a link between education, training and the new jobs is an essential part of the plan, according to Costain's development manager Will Wesson, a former history teacher. His task is to build links with the community and help guarantee a sustainable regeneration package. "It's an advantage to us if we're able to offer a trained labour force as an attraction for inward investors. "

Instead of imposing its own solution on the young people of Grimethorpe, Costain offered them encouragement and support to enable them to come up with their own ideas. "Our principle," Mr Wesson explains, "has been to avoid creating dependency. The whole history of the Barnsley area is that it has been too dependent on a single employer - the coal industry, which in the past provided jobs and homes for life. Any support we've given the children has been based on their initiatives and their enthusiasm. Our influence has been to bring a lot of people together."

About a dozen children from Willowgarth formed a permanent committee to meet with the contractor and outside agencies. Volunteers were drawn from the schools' youth forum - part of its personal and social development curriculum. The children got the backing of their headteacher, local councillors, school governors and local employers before making plans and starting a fundraising campaign.They approached sponsors and charities like British Telecom, local employer Carlton Brick, the John Paul Getty Fund and Save the Children, raising Pounds 200,000.

A location for GAZ was found in part of the derelict British Coal regional headquarters in the centre of the village which the council was refurbishing to create a focal point for community support. Already it houses a library, a branch of Barnsley College, counselling organisations, a community policeman, and is the new permanent headquarters for the village's world famous Grimethorpe Colliery Band - still an important source of local pride.

Sixteen-year-old Michelle Clark says the centre has altered her prospects too. "My mum and dad were going to move away from the village, but now they're going to stay."

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