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It’s more than just a game

Pass it on

Drawing upon the teamwork found in a game of football, sports charity Street League is giving unemployed young people new prospects. Sarah Holmes reports on how Freemasons are supporting the charity as it reaches out to even more communities

It’s a blustery winter afternoon at the Moberly Sports and Education Centre in north-west London and, despite the menacing grey sky above, twenty or so lads have gathered to play their weekly game of football. Refereeing is Adam White, a twenty-three-year-old sports coach from Wembley. He used to play in these games all the time, before he was referred on to study for a Football Association (FA) coaching qualification by Street League, the charity that organises the matches. 

‘Three years ago, I would have been more inclined to stay in bed on a day like this,’ admits Adam. ‘But Street League gave me the opportunity to change my ways. It made me more motivated and confident.’ 

Established in 2001, Street League uses football to engage unemployed young people – both girls and boys – from disadvantaged backgrounds across England and Scotland. 

The aim is to get as many individuals as possible back into training and employment through its innovative academy network, which teaches essential employability skills and GCSE-equivalent qualifications through a ten-week programme. 

Now, thanks to a grant of £20,000 from the Royal Masonic Trust for Girls and Boys (RMTGB), Street League will be able to run an additional academy in south-west London – helping a further twenty young people to find employment in 2015. 

Football focus

At school, Adam was better known as the ‘naughty one’ – a reputation that only fuelled his disruptive behaviour. Things reached a head in 2006, when, at the age of fifteen, he was expelled. ‘School wasn’t the best time for me,’ he says. ‘I used to be silly and mess around. Football was the only thing that mattered, so my parents and teachers used it as a carrot to dangle in front of me to make me behave. I remember my mum hiding my trainers whenever I was naughty.’

After completing the Street League course in 2012, Adam went on to achieve his Level 1 FA coaching qualification, later returning to the charity to volunteer at two of its academies. 

Now a paid Street League staff member, he is helping others to find focus in life, as he did. ‘As someone who has been through the process, it’s incredibly gratifying to see the lads come out the other side and get jobs,’ he says.  

The passion of Street League’s latest cohort is clear at today’s match. Although the pitch isn’t in the best nick – the faded AstroTurf is torn and chewed up and mounds of leaves have piled up against the corners of the metal grate fencing – it doesn’t faze the youngsters. They bound enthusiastically around the pitch, chanting and encouraging their teammates as if they were playing at Wembley. For them, this is more than a simple football match: it’s a chance to turn their lives around. 

‘Street League gave me the opportunity to change my ways. It made me more motivated and confident.’ Adam White

Playing ball

Street League attracts its numbers through free weekly football sessions for unemployed sixteen- to twenty-five-year-olds. When a player shows the desire to change their life, they will be invited to attend one of the quarterly ten-week academies, which are structured around two hours of classroom-based learning followed by two hours of football practice. It’s an innovative approach that continues to attract the attention of funders, including the RMTGB. 

‘We found out about Street League through our Stepping Stones scheme, which the charity applied to,’ says Les Hutchinson, CEO of the RMTGB. ‘We always receive more requests for funding than we can possibly provide, but Street League stood out for its unique approach to helping young people.’

‘The academies offer both sport and education, giving their participants the opportunity to keep fit and achieve key qualifications,’ he continues. ‘That’s not to mention the careers guidance, mock interviews and CV-writing sessions they include in their curriculums. We award our grants to charities that are shown to have the biggest impact, and Street League proved to be a worthy recipient.’

The grant from the RMTGB acts as a formal seal of approval, which will hopefully encourage other sources to invest in Street League’s cause. With interest in the academies on the rise, expansion is a real priority for the charity. ‘This newest academy will help us branch out into communities facing real challenges in Lambeth and Wandsworth,’ says Nathan Persaud, Street League’s north London operations manager. 

Typically, forty-three per cent of the young people Street League works with in south-west London will have previous criminal convictions, and only twenty-three per cent will have left school with any qualifications. They are some of the hardest-to-reach individuals in the city, but Street League’s football-oriented initiative is connecting with some of them.

‘Football is our hook,’ says Nathan. ‘It’s our unique way of engaging young people who might not otherwise be interested in the course. It gives it credibility in their eyes.’

Football is incorporated into every aspect of the academy, including the classroom hours. Participants brush up on their basic maths skills using fantasy football leagues, while the CVs of professional football players provide templates for the participants to learn how to apply for jobs. Many also study for FA-approved coaching qualifications, so they can go on to complete their mandatory work placements in local coaching clubs. ‘All participants have to complete one hundred hours of work experience, so we try to set them up with a meaningful placement in local businesses,’ adds Nathan. 

Tackle the future

The support of Street League’s corporate sponsors TM Lewin, Barclays and Premier Inn has also proved integral in placing participants by offering internships, and in some instances long-term employment, to academy graduates. Last year, eight hundred and forty-seven young people went into employment, training or education after graduating from Street League, and this year that figure will exceed 1,000 for the first time. 

But it’s not just the work done in the classroom that has an impact. 

As Nathan explains, what these young people learn on the pitch is just as important: ‘It’s difficult to discuss softer skills like communication and teamwork with these guys. In a classroom environment, it might seem too intimate and too confrontational, but on the pitch we can teach them how to control their anger and communicate effectively within their team so that hopefully those skills will filter into their everyday lives.’

Wayne Smith is one such youngster whose confidence and career aspirations enjoyed a massive boost after participating in Street League. He joined the Kensal Rise academy in January 2014, then a shadow of the confident young man who captains his team through the match today. ‘At first, I just wanted to play football. I never dreamt I’d be able to establish a career in it,’ he says. 

Through the academy, Wayne completed his Level 2 FA coaching qualification and gained experience as a volunteer coach by setting up drills and refereeing training sessions for successive groups. Now, he’s working towards his Level 3 award with hopes of going into coaching full-time. 

For Wayne, the encouragement he has received has transformed his life, and it’s a sentiment that also rings true for Moussa Silakwa. Struggling through a media studies course at college when he first came to Street League, Moussa didn’t even have the confidence to talk to his own teammates during a match. Two years later, he runs a football academy in Battersea Park for teenagers pursuing a career in the industry. ‘It’s unbelievable how many opportunities are available through Street League,’ he says. ‘It can really take you places if you are willing to work.’

If you could offer a work placement, apprenticeship or entry-level job to one of Street League’s academy graduates, contact jodie.mcnally@streetleague.co.uk for more information

New life goals

Not all participants at Street League come straight from school. Filip Ricardo (pictured above) was studying politics in Manchester when he decided to pursue a career in football. ‘I only went to university because I didn’t know what else to do,’ he says. ‘If vocational options like Street League had been made more apparent in school, then I would definitely have gone for them.’

Having already achieved his A-levels, Filip used his time at Street League’s open football sessions to access one-to-one careers advice and support. Within two weeks he had been set up with a part-time job coaching school children. It was the first, fundamental break that enabled Filip to get a foot in the door of the football industry. 

‘I realised you don’t need a degree to make it in life,’ he says. ‘If people don’t fit the mould at school, it’s easy to brand them the badly behaved kid. Teachers treat them differently, they miss out on opportunities, and that can make them more rebellious. But if these kids were told what they can do, instead of constantly being told what they can’t do, it could make a big difference.’