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Football Beyond Borders (FBB) is an education and social inclusion charity using the power of football to transform the lives of young people. In October, Dame Rachel de Souza visited the FBB programme at Manchester Enterprise Academy. In this blog, their Senior Policy Manager, James Reeves, tells us more about their work.

For children and teachers, the winter holiday ends the longest term of the school year. After sixteen weeks in school, educators everywhere are reflecting on their young people’s progress, and how to provide more effective support in the new year.

With continuous professional development in mind, practitioners at Football Beyond Borders take part in weekly training through our Practitioner Training Programme (PTP). It provides staff with the tools they need to develop mastery, autonomy and connection in their work with vulnerable young people, drawing on best practice from youth work, social work, and SEND support. Our vision is that this will become a DfE accredited qualification akin to programmes like Teach First and Frontline.

This week’s mastery sessions saw our CEO, Jack Reynolds, share insights on how to deliver therapeutically informed, tailored one-to-ones with young people who are struggling to engage at school. Jack shared the story of a young person called, for the purpose of this blog, Daryl. Daryl was affected by a history of Adverse Childhood Experiences, attending a school classified in ‘Special Measures’ by Ofsted and living in challenging home and community environments. He was severely absent and had received a number of fixed-term exclusions when he was in Year 8 and 9.

Jack developed a working alliance with Daryl, based on a written contract which gave Daryl the opportunity to identify the important relationships in his life, and then what he needed from Jack within spaces they shared in school. This included the chance for Daryl to play games that helped to ground him, and to arrive somewhere he felt safe, welcomed and valued. After a fixed-term exclusion and five day isolation which almost spelled the end of Daryl’s time at school, Jack shared elements of this contract and the strategies that worked to support Daryl with his teachers. Daryl turned things around, gained five GCSEs – including English and maths – and is now working towards an apprenticeship at college.

In sharing parts of the contract, Jack found the formula to answer Football Beyond Borders’ founding question: what does it take to support the most vulnerable young people to thrive in mainstream school?

The unwritten contract between young people and school was ripped apart by the pandemic. The result: the syndemic crises of severe and persistent absence, widespread challenges with pupil mental health and wellbeing and record-high pupil suspensions.

The answer to FBB’s founding question will be different for every single child struggling with school in the U.K. The new contract – as it did with Daryl – will need to be rewritten for every one of the 120,000 young people who are severely absent. Our intrinsic belief at FBB – the thing we will pursue across all of our activities – is that all young people need and deserve a relationship with a consistent, trusted and relatable adult.

This is why football is a key part of our work; in our view, it is the most powerful tool in the world to build relationships. There is a phrase common in football circles which is often used by managers – “control the controllables”. Many things during a match won’t be affected by your actions, and it’s the same in education. Whilst it’s incredibly difficult to affect the community environments young people are contending with, we can do our utmost to ensure they are welcomed by expert staff when they are in school.

Janine Hope, Vice Principal of Manchester Enterprise Academy, is a huge supporter of FBB’s work.

Their programmes contribute towards students’ personal development and, crucially, focus on improving their attendance.

“FBB have had a huge impact on the students they have worked with, and this is noticeable in how our students are able to express their thoughts and feelings.”

We know that coupling our belief in relational practice along with data, evidence-based programming and constant innovation are instrumental strategies for developing effective solutions for the challenges that we see in schools. This is why we’re so excited to support the Big Ambition. One of the key roles of the Children’s Commissioner is to ensure that children’s voices are heard, and the data provided in the survey helps policymakers to better understand the challenges young people face.

Our staff, and the young people we work with, are looking forward to a new year and the opportunity to leave the school gates in daylight again. However, the holidays are also periods where many of the young people we work with miss the regular contact with their practitioner. It is at this time I think of young people in similar contexts to Daryl.

A recent report from the Children’s Commissioner outlined that “every school attendance policy should have to detail how schools will build and sustain positive relationships with all parents and carers” and during the holidays, this is more important than ever.  

The most vulnerable young people are disproportionately represented in attendance, exclusion and attainment statistics. It is clear the entire schools and youth sector need to be coordinated in our approach to support them.

FBB are seeking MAT partners to co-develop our Practitioner Training Programme with. We want to deliver specialist training for non-teaching and support staff in schools so that young people are provided with feelings of safety, containment and a readiness to learn.

It is by listening to young people and their families, contracting with them and building long-term relationships that we can deliver this vision within an inclusive, world-class education system.

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