Damian Collins: The power of sport to change lives

Posted On: 
30th September 2016

Sport cannot provide the answers to all of society’s problems, but in the hands of the right people it can be a powerful tool for engaging young people who have been left behind, writes Damian Collins 

Last year I took a group of young people on a tour of the House of Commons; one of the pleasures of being an MP, but nothing out of the ordinary. The difference on this occasion was that I was with a group of young ex-offenders being supported by Key 4 Life, an organisation that uses sport and music to unlock their lives and then provides the mentoring and support they need to successfully re-enter society.

As we were standing among the green benches, one young man in his early twenties asked me what it was like to speak in the House when it was full, with the difficulty of the noise and people shouting at you. He wanted to know how MPs tried to compose themselves to deal with the challenging environment. He then told me that he had spent time in a young offender institution, for dealing in class A drugs, and with the help of Key 4 Life now had a new job working with a financial company in London. The young man finished off his story by adding that you don’t deal in class A drugs because you are stupid and can’t do anything else. He had regarded it as a difficult job, but one that brought high financial rewards. He can now see that it was the wrong path to take, and one that could have destroyed his life, as well as those of other people.

To end up in a young offender institution often means that you have consistently offended since your childhood, and that you will go on doing so as an adult. If, upon release, a young offender returns to the old friends and bad influences that they came from, the impact of prison, such as it was, will soon be a distant memory.

Thanks to Key 4 Life, this intelligent young man has been able to change his focus, supported by new friends and mentors who will help keep him on track. Only 18% of those who have been through the Key 4 Life programme have re-offended, compared to the national proven re-offending rate of 74%.

Sport is one of the solutions to this cycle of recidivism, and another excellent programme is Get Onside, run by Saracens rugby club, which each year works with 30 inmates at Feltham Young Offender Institution. Participants work through a 10-week educational and personal development programme – leading to qualifications and an accredited coaching award – alongside daily rugby sessions. Excellent behaviour is a prerequisite for continued involvement. Better discipline, self-awareness, humility and honesty have almost always been the results.

After graduates leave Feltham, the Saracens Foundation offers them work opportunities on match days, provides mentors to help them with reintegration and works closely with organisations that offer support with issues like housing, employment and welfare. Many have continued to play rugby for amateur clubs in their community – a valuable additional support network.

Since Get Onside began, only seven of its 93 graduates have gone on to reoffend – set against Feltham’s average re-offending rate of 85%. Given that the cost of keeping a young offender in prison is around £37,000 a year, it is clear the £30,000 annual cost of the whole programme (around £1,000 per participant) provides an excellent return on investment.

Results keep on improving, too. Only two participants from the last two cohorts of 30 have reoffended, and more than half are now in full-time employment. Many of the rest are in education. These young men are no longer taking from society – they’re adding to it.

Sport cannot provide the answers to all of society’s problems, but in the hands of the right people it can be a powerful tool for engaging young people who have been left behind and fallen into a life of crime.

The government’s new sports strategy now requires all bodies that receive public money to do more to target those people in hard to reach communities who are not currently engaged in any physical activity.

This should not just be left to sports bodies, but should also involve other government departments, like the Home Office and the Department for Justice, that can use their budgets to support the power of community sport to help deliver broader social benefits.

We need a government-wide strategy for sport, rather than a fractured range of different initiatives run by varied departments and public bodies.

Similarly, the government’s additional investment of £500m into primary school sport is greatly welcomed, but we should measure its success not just in the improvement in physical health and sports participation: we may find that there are also benefits to the attendance rates and educational attainment of the children.

A headmaster of a primary school in my constituency recently told me that there had been a noticeable improvement in the results of the educational assessment of his children over the last two years, and the only thing they were really doing differently was that there was a lot more sport for the children, both during the day and through evening and weekend clubs.

We need to measure the broader range of benefits that sport can bring, and where it is shown to be successful, increase our investment in it. We may find that it is much more impactful than some of the traditional, expensive interventions that have let us down in the past.

Damian Collins is Conservative MP for Folkestone and Hythe and acting chair of the Culture, Media & Sport Committee