I’ve been a youth worker for 20 years and I’ve never seen anything as powerful as football. It is the national game, everybody loves it and it acts as a great leveller – wherever you come from, you’re an equal on the pitch.
At Street League, we use football to engage young people living in the most disadvantaged communities, then take them on an employability course, which eventually gets them into jobs that they need and deserve.
We work with those who have left school with few or no qualifications. Giving these people access to high-quality football coaches who can teach them something that they want to learn cuts through so many barriers. Building relationships with young people facing difficult challenges can take months – but on the pitch it takes just a few hours.
Being involved with football means that you are instantly part of a team and, with our young people, we find that the team attitude begins to permeate their lives in a positive way. They become accountable to their team. If they don’t get up one morning and fail to come to the academy, their team-mates suffer. This helps the team become really strong. That carries through to when they are interviewing for jobs – the whole team is behind them, giving them the confidence to go on.
We also educate young people on how to find a job and get a CV together, while volunteer staff from our commercial partners [such as Hyundai] visit our academies to give them mock interviews and feedback from their interviewers. That means that when they go for a real interview, they have already tried it and understand it.
Beating youth unemployment is about finding creative ways to solve the problem. A lot of youth employability programmes expect young people to come and sit in a classroom straightaway.
If a young person hated school and did not respond well to the classroom, the way to engage them is not to ask them to go back to a classroom. We have taken a different approach to make learning appealing.
I joined Street League four years ago and we decided to focus our efforts on youth unemployment because it is such a huge issue. We estimate that around 20 per cent of the one million unemployed young people have a greater need because they live in disadvantaged areas and have no qualifications.
Among those one million unemployed young people, many are graduates or A-level students who will eventually find a job. In this economic climate, we see first-class maths graduates working in phone shops, so the downward pressure on those without qualifications is immense. To me, they are the real lost generation, and I’m driven by the fact that those young people deserve a chance to go into a job and compete on a level playing field, perhaps for the first time in their lives.
Four years ago, Street League was in three locations in England. Today it is in 10 locations across England and Scotland and we are about to open in a further five locations across the UK.
Eighty-one per cent of people who complete our course go into employment, education or training afterwards – and we only count them in that statistic once they have proof that they are fully participating, such as a payslip or acceptance letter, because we want to make sure we have given them an outcome.
We want to truly reach as many young people as we can with this model that works, not just celebrate numbers who have attended the course. We are here to change lives and so that is what we measure. And it has been tough for us to get to this stage. The climate is terrible for charity fund-raising but running Street League as a social enterprise has helped us to be efficient, get the most from the funding we have and therefore reach more young people.
Being realistic about what happens to people who do a course at Street League also helps us to make our programmes better and better.
A report by the Association of Chief Executives of Voluntary Organisations last year said that even in a growing economy, there are still 7 to 9 per cent of young people who are always unemployed. That is structural youth unemployment and it has existed for 40 years. Youth unemployment is a problem worsened by a recession – but one that will continue beyond it.
That 7 to 9 per cent are the people who interest me and the people whom I want to help. If you can engage that group with something that they love, such as football, to help them do more with their lives, that has got to be a good thing.