Fewer young people will be killed or go to jail as a result of gang-related violence if sport is given more prominence in schools, a major education event has heard.
A former Glasgow gang member said that “it was easier to get a knife than a tennis racquet” when he was a pupil, but that sports coaching had since helped to transform his life.
Mark Gallacher, 25, who now runs coaching sessions for young people, has seen many sucked into violence. “A lot of my friends are dead or in jail, and that’s the reality,” he said.
“I don’t know where I would have been if I didn’t pursue the path I’m on,” added Mr Gallacher, who sits on the Young People’s Sports Panel for national agency SportScotland.
Yet he had few opportunities to try sport while at school. “I could name more gangs in Glasgow than I could sports clubs when I was 13,” he told the Raising Attainment and Achievement Through Sport conference, held in Edinburgh earlier this month.
Sport was used as a reward for those who excelled in class, he recalled, but he got few such opportunities as he was considered to be “the class clown”.
A low point came at the age of around 15 when he was “splatted” with blood after a friend was hit in the head by an air-rifle pellet: “We had to carry him back to school,” he recalls. “We were really good at running and fighting. We probably could have been the best athletics club in Glasgow if we’d tried.
“We used to cross the road and gang-fight and smash windows – that’s where we got our adrenaline rushes from.” Mr Gallacher was speaking just days before a 16-year-old boy was found guilty of killing schoolboy Bailey Gwynne, who was stabbed to death at Cults Academy in Aberdeen last October.
Mr Gallacher now runs coaching in football, boxing and badminton, and works for various community projects in Glasgow, including PEEK (Possibilities for Each and Every Kid), which promotes play-based activities for children in the city’s East End. “I’m just trying to show [pupils] what we should have been doing when I was in school,” said Mr Gallacher, who believes that schools’ attitudes to sport have improved dramatically in recent years.
Maureen McKenna, president of education directors’ body ADES, which jointly organised the conference with SportScotland, said: “Sport can make a difference in young people’s lives: it provides structure when sometimes there can be none. Teamwork, communication and confidence are all skills that are developed.”
Glasgow, where Ms McKenna is education director, has fully embraced the Sports Leaders UK awards scheme in recent years: 1,603 local young people achieved a qualification in 2014-15. Only 122 UK establishments had gained the status of “leadership academies”, during the period, with nine in Scotland and five in Glasgow alone – including the school formerly attended by Mr Gallacher.
Criminologist Ross Deuchar, an expert in gangs and assistant dean at the University of the West of Scotland’s School of Education, said: “For young male gang members, traditionally masculine-oriented working-class sports like boxing can provide an important means for channelling aggression and maintaining status among peers, without having to fight on the streets.
“However, while participation in sports like boxing often gets rid of the aggression that anger and frustration produce, it doesn’t address the root causes.”
Professor Deuchar recently published his research on a Danish rehabilitation programme for male gang members that uses boxing (“Boxing clever to support young offenders”, TESS, 12 February). It creates camaraderie but also, through a boxer’s struggles in the ring, provides a “metaphor for life”.
Will Linden, senior researcher at the national Violence Reduction Unit, saw sport as a “powerful tool” but not a “silver bullet”. It could help those people who come from chaotic childhoods to pursue long-term life goals, he added.
Can’t catch a ball? Join the club that offers rugby for all
The success of Perth Academy’s School of Rugby was highlighted at the Raising Attainment and Achievement Through Sport conference.
The project, started in 2010, aims to develop all pupils, rather than focusing on elite players. Taylor Main, 17, an S5 pupil, said that before joining, he was not sporty, “couldn’t catch the ball” and contended with Asperger’s syndrome and dyspraxia. Now he is a qualified rugby referee and is a member of the Scottish Youth Parliament. “This programme is fantastic – I wouldn’t be the person that I am today without it,” he said.
PE teacher Craig Mueller-Ahsmann said that the whole school took sport seriously, with more than half of one year group choosing certificated PE.
‘Jaw-dropping’ fall in crime
The Scottish Prison Service told the education directors’ annual conference in November about schools’ contribution to a “jaw-dropping” fall in reported youth crime, citing these figures:
2,764 - Number of children referred to the Children’s Reporter for offending in 2013-14 (the figure was 17,641 in 2005-06).
477 - Number of prisoners in Polmont Young Offenders’ Institution (nearly 800 in 2011).
21,955 - Number of school exclusions in 2012-13 (44,794 in 2006-07).