Street League is a charity using football to help some of the UK's most disadvantaged young people. Club Website editor Dan Pope paid them a visit this month.
Football is a powerful thing. It can alter a person's mood in the blink of an eye but, when harnessed correctly, it can even change people's lives.
Street League is an organisation that does exactly that. They use the positive power of football to help some of the UK's most disadvantaged young people to make a positive change in their lives.
There are currently more than one million 16-25 year-olds out of work in the UK. That's one in five.
The brainchild of Damian Hatton - a doctor who wanted to provide a positive focus for the homeless people he saw regularly in A&E - Street League was setup in London in 2001 and hasn't looked back, now operating in five centres across the UK.
They are focused on helping the most disadvantaged 16-25 year old NEETs (Not in Employment, Education or Training), who are often ex-offenders, have been excluded from school or who have a history of substance abuse.
How it works
Using weekly 'Street Football' drop-in sessions to attract new recruits, Street League run an intensive eight-week academy that combines football and education to help participants improve their employability levels.
Run four days a week from 9am, the academy provides a structured programme of two hours educational training followed by two hours of football - the game acting as an incentive for students to do their work each day.
Participants receive help with CV writing, goal setting and gaining qualifications. They also take part in mock interviews and employability workshops, whilst one-to-one careers advice and support is offered throughout.
The results speak for themselves. Three out of four (75%) academy graduates find employment, training or get back into education.
That currently works out at over 600 young people a year - 65% of whom find their way back into work. Street League aims to increase that figure to 2,000 by 2014, when they hope to be in 12 different cities across the UK.
I met some of the latest Street League graduates when I attended this month's London South West graduation, including Ashley - a young man who had recently come out of prison and was hoping that Street League could help him turn his life around.
“It wasn’t the best 10 months of my life," Ashley told me. "It’s obviously not a good thing, but it's done now. I’d like to leave it behind me and get on with my life.”
“Being part of Street League been good. I’ve been here seven weeks now and I don’t want to leave.”
A talented footballer, Ashley (right) was made captain of the academy side and his influence on the pitch was reflected in his progress off it.
“I was proud to be made captain, but I also felt this responsibility on my shoulders to help other people. It made me realise that I can take on responsibilities that I didn’t think I could take on before.”
“I know I can finish things now. Before I never finished anything in my life. In school I got kicked out early. In college I got kicked out early. I came here and realised I can finish things if it’s something that I’m motivated to do."
Motivation is key to Street League's model, as students are often in a cycle of facing few prospects, having little direction and receiving only negative feedback.
"I think the model we’ve got really works," Sean Porter, Progessions Officer at the South West academy, told me. "16-25 year-olds are a notoriously difficult group to engage and football is such a powerful tool to achieve that.
“It’s good to get these guys motivated, to break them out of their routine, to get them active, to make them aware of what skills they’ve got and what opportunities they’ve got out there.
"All they hear is 'recession, recession' but there are lots of opportunities out there. It’s just about making sure they’re aware of what they are, how to access them and how to sell themselves once they’ve accessed them. I think the programme works really well.”
“Football is the most important element. Ultimately it’s a bit of smokescreen for what we’re trying to achieve but, without it, these guys wouldn’t be engaged."
Sean is one of three people who run the South West academy, like all Street League centres across the UK. He handles all employability, life skills and career advice work, while Youth and Community Coach Erkan Ibrhaim handles the sports coaching, football training and outreach work to get participants involved.
The success story
Working alongside Sean and Ibrahim is Apprentice Coach Rowan Simon, himself a former participant at Street League. Rowan left school at 17 with few qualifications, no direction in his life and negative feedback ringing in his ears.
One teacher told him that he would "end up in prison", which re-inforced a cycle of disruptive behaviour that ended, in February 2009, with a 15-month prison sentence.
Rowan spent the first five months out of prison in limbo, not even signing on. He was on the verge of re-joining his old gang when his probation officer referred him to Street League in December 2010.
"I didn’t know what to expect," Rowan told me. "I just knew I had the chance to play football and that I could get some qualifications. Football was the thing that stood out. That's what made me be there."
“I remember once early in the academy, somebody asked me what skills or qualifications I have and I said I didn’t have any.
"Then he made me realise that there are transferrable skills that everybody has. It’s just a case of recognising them.”
Rowan has been working at the South West academy for the last 18 months, providing help and guidance to those young people in the same position that he once was.
“I can give them the same sort of help I got. I can relate to them 'cause I was in the same position as them, so I bridge the gap between the staff and the participants.”
You could call him the manager's number two in the Street League dressing room. It is a familiar role in the Street League setup, as half of all London operations staff, and one in four nationally, are former academy graduates.
But the ability to connect with participants is only part of the reason why Street League re-employ so many graduates, as Chief Executive Matt Stevenson-Dodd explained.
"We try our best to employ as many people as we can from the front line. There is just no better person to lead our courses than someone who has been through it.
"But we're all about employability here, so we have to be able to put our money where our mouth is. If we can't take on our own graduates, why should we expect anybody else to? Practicing what we preach is important."
This is anything but a token gesture.
The value that Street League place on their graduates was evidenced perfectly last week when Street League won the P&G UK Impact Award at the Beyond Sport Awards.
With Lord Coe presenting the award, one might expect the CEO to provide the public face of the organisation.
But Matt and Rowan took the stage together to collect the award, and it was the ex-academy graduate who gave the acceptance speech on behalf of Street League.
Not bad for someone in the "first proper job" they have ever had.
Already a charity partner of the FA and 10 Downing's Street volunteering partner, the award marks another step on Street League's upward trajectory and highlights football's extraordinary ability to change people's lives.
“The power of football is so incredible here," the Chief Exec continued. "I’ve been in youth work for over 20 years and I’ve never seen anything as powerful as football at engaging people. It’s phenomenal. It just speeds up the whole thing.
“The youth worker relationship can take three- to six months to build properly. You can do it in days in football, because it’s just so powerful. It’s incredible."
With a sixth centre opening in Liverpool next month and a further six planned for 2014, it seems the sky is the limit for this organisation with the beautiful game at its heart.
“Football can be a really powerful force for good. It’s just what you do with it," added Stevenson-Dodd. "We’ve got something here that’s just amazing. It’s working really well. Our challenge is to take that further and wider and see how far we can go with this.
“Now it’s all about the outcome. It’s all about the impact and what happens in that young person’s life.
"If you can get them into a job, that young person is no longer claiming benefits, they are paying taxes, they’re more likely to sustain a home and a sustainable relationship.
“People like the Prince’s Trust have proved this time and again. It’s saving £50,000 a year for the taxpayer getting someone into a job when they are 16, 18, 20, and they are more likely to sustain a job for life then, which is so important.
"It’s a long term investment here.
"There are one million young people out of work. I think don’t our job is to try to find a job for a million people. Our job is to make sure that the most people in the most need are helped and have a chance to compete on a level playing field."
Dan Pope, Club Website editor
How can I help?
If you'd like to show your support for Street League, there are a number of ways you can get involved, from raising money through your football team to offering your services as a volunteer or even employment opportunites through your company.
“We’re really keen to build a movement here of the people who believe in the power of football to change lives," said Stevenson-Dodd. "Can any of your members or their businesses give our young people a chance? Can they give them an entry level job?
"One thing we can promise is they will be motivated. I hear this all the time from employers, all they want is people who are motivated and ready for work.
"That’s what we’re able to do."
To find out more about Street League visit streetleague.co.uk.