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Malcolm Dean on Southside Young Leaders' Academy


As Andy Walker, a talented television producer, and his wife Pat, an inspiring Southwark primary school headteacher approached retirement, they were both looking for a cause- which they could take up with more time on their hands.

It wasn’t difficult for Pat. She had seen first-hand the large number of bright young black boys who failed to fulfil their earlier promise in school. Andy, who had spent 40 years making science and technology education programmes for the BBC and Channel Four, winning three prestigious Royal Television Society awards, was well aware of Pat’s concern and had a long history of working with young people himself. The cause was confirmed by national education statistics and there were even grimmer statistics: black men were three times more likely to be unemployed than their white contemporaries; twice as likely to be detained under a mental health order; and more of them end up in prison than in one of the top universities in the Russell group.

Together they looked at various schemes that might provide a solution. They chose to use the model of Eastside Young Leaders’ Academy in London and replicate it in South London. As an adaptation of an American project for under-achieving pupils, they liked its idea of giving young people something to which they could aspire and its triangular approach engaging three crucial partners: the boys, schools and parents.

One key team member was recruited from Eastside; a fund-raising operation was launched; a board of trustees appointed; and suitable accommodation found. Within 18 months, the project was launched. It began in 2007 with six schools, which has grown to 20, and they hope to double again in the next five years. It has already helped transform the lives of 200 boys.

As the numbers grew, the programme widened its reach. From an initial base of one after school event a week plus Saturday the programme expanded to four successive days: computer coding club on Mondays which can help boys make games as well as play them; education support on Tuesdays; Duke of Edinburgh award challenges on Wednesday; and more education support on Thursdays plus Saturdays.

The education support provides both 1 to 1 and group support in core subjects and incorporates team activities including games to create an alternative learning environment. These sessions provide the boys, aged 8 to 16, with long-term support for 40 weeks a year. Personal and social skills are developed through mentoring programmes. Six leadership traits drawn from the Character Counts programme (trust, respect, responsibility, fairness, caring, citizenship) are explored over the year. Every summer a sail training week is organised at the UK Sailing Academy on the Isle of Wight. It includes raft building, sailing, life-saving and canoeing. Creative learning is pursued through work place visits involving arts, photography, video production, media activities and citizenship sessions. Leadership skills emerge from learning to sail and command a crew; public speaking; planning events; and taking part in the Young Leaders’ Council.

Other developments have included an in-school version of their leadership and mentoring classes. It was based on a Swahili programme, ‘stepping stones to learning’. Ten of the 12 boys on the initial pilot were on the most badly behaved register in Year 5. By the time the pilot ended only one of the boys was still on the register. The most difficult boy in another cohort moved from ‘a crisis case’ at primary school to achieving 11 ‘A’ stars in GCSE. Various headteachers have paid tribute to the programmes.

It is not just the boys and the schools that are benefiting from the different programmes. Parents are too. Every year a four week course for mothers is organised giving them insights into how young people develop along with new ways of communicating with them. Not just words but tone and manner too. High tributes have followed: ‘It’s given me tools, confidence and reassurance in my parenting. I’ve seen a big difference in the way I deal with my son.’ Another mother said: ‘I loved the course. I was able to review my old self. I’m a lot calmer at home.’ A third one added: ‘I found it all very useful, especially discipline and motivation topics.’

An independent evaluation by the New Philanthropy Capital, appointed by one of the project’s  generous funders, the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, was equally favourable: ‘The impact of Southside is clear: a cohort of boys who might have been causing trouble for the community and closing off avenues for themselves are instead benefiting from long-term support, an impressive result for the boys, and the financial implications are good, given the high costs to children and society of truancy and exclusion.’

One important organisation that has played a key role in Southside’s growth has been SJ Berwin, the city solicitors now part of KWM (King &Wood Mallesons). They chose Southside as the charity they would support in their community outreach programme and their support has been exemplary. Indeed it was rightly given an award from its own industry for its Southside work. Currently Southside is being funded by Esmee Fairbairn, the Big Lottery, Garfield Weston, Southwark council, and donors at The London Community Foundation. More funders would be welcome.

Both Andy and Pat have now withdrawn from the charity’s front line. True to their creed (‘True leaders don’t create followers, they create more leaders’) they are happy with their successors.

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