This is an abridged version of a report written about the work of the Connect Centre in engaging young people from marginalised backgrounds in positive experiences. It was highly successful. Funding was cut in 2006 and the Centre was closed, in much the same way as cuts to front line services in 2016 are affecting the opportunities available. On a personal level, I am soon to be redundant again from a role that can make a difference and that I’m good at!
Making the Connection
Written By Charnwood Arts in 2005
It’s not how much space you’ve got, but what you do with it that counts. The Connect Centre in Coalville, behind the local branch of Connexions, is a room not much bigger than my lounge at home. A couple of years ago this was just a cold, damp room not being used for much at all. Now the walls are a vibrant orange, covered in artwork and posters. There are two internet-ready PCs, comfy seats and a small kitchen area. This is somewhere warm and inviting, a place where young people are always welcomed and accepted for who they are.
Those who come here have all been through tough times. Aged between 13 and 19, often they’ve had problems with drugs or other addictions. They’ve been victims of bullying and abuse, sexual and physical. Some of them have been homeless or in prison. None of this does much for their confidence; normally when they come here their self-esteem is at rock bottom.
But they don’t leave like that, according to Centre Co-ordinator Nicola O’Neill. Nearly every young person who has left the project so far has gone on to some form of education or full-time job. Having been there since the Centre was established in April 2001, she has seen it develop into what it is today and is fiercely proud of its achievements.
I’m given a real flavour of those achievements when I watch a video, Lone Bird, that has won this year’s Youth Against Crime award at the Conquering Crime Awards. The video is part of the Multimedia Project that runs here every Monday and Tuesday. Harvey Sharman-Dunn, a filmmaker and composer, is on hand to help as the young people produce leaflet and poster designs, build websites, make animations and videos. It gives them a chance to use equipment they might never otherwise have access to, to build up valuable computer skills, and above all, to build confidence.
The quality of the Lone Bird film is astounding. It manages to convey, in a powerful, even shocking way, the dangers of drug abuse. But it does this without using any dialogue, and without resorting to a “scolding teacher” approach. It simply uses images, music and film techniques to get its message across. Although Nicola and Harvey insist that it’s the process, not the quality of the end product that’s important, you’d never realise that from watching this film. The quality of the end product is amazingly high. Various organisations have caught on to this and are commissioning the Connect Centre to design leaflets and posters for them. On the day I visit, preparations are well underway for an exhibition of all the work, at the Y Theatre in Leicester. Hopefully, this exhibition should give this amazing work some of the recognition it deserves.
Background and Underpinning Principles
Originally funded jointly by Leicestershire Careers and Guidance Service Ltd and New Start, Coalville Connect Centre aims to provide a safe, welcoming comfortable and non-judgemental environment for young people aged 13-19 to seek information, advice or support on a range of issue. Established in April 2001, it developed into a thriving and successful Centre for young people reflecting the needs and issues faced by those who use it. Importantly, the development of the Centre and the services that it offers were directly informed by consultation with young people and local agencies who work with them.
With the introduction of the Connexions Service in Leicestershire, the funding for the Centre transferred also. With the Centre refurbished and resourced, Connexions paid the salary of the Centre Co-ordinator and there was an annual budget of £4000 to run the Centre and develop projects and programmes. All financial costs came from this budget apart from heating and lighting. The Centre was able to generate a small amount of income to cover costs of producing materials for other organisations who commission leaflets, posters, websites or videos.
Chris Humphries, Director General of City and Guilds, used Starbucks as an analogy when he talked about changing the environment as a means of effecting change in outcomes. Despite a very large investment in advertising, and a campaign that was hugely successful in terms of the interest generated in members of the public, Humphries highlighted that this had no effect on the significant drop in coffee consumption in the 1980’s. The overriding factor in turning consumption trends around was the opening of Starbucks outlets – the provision of a different environment for consumption that was what people wanted. He parallels this with a change of environment for learning to provide an upturn in the quality and quantity of learning and acquiring skills and qualifications.
Independent Psychologist Dr Gerald Lombard states that 1 in 10 young people have a systematic reading failure and have not learnt at an early age the skills to read people’s faces. This, he argues, is a key reason for disaffection, beginning with restricted exchange in early, informative years within the circle of intimacy, through the circles of friendship, participation and exchange. Compounded by 2nd and 3rd generation family break ups, which have reduced access to extended networks, this has resulted social deprivation. During extensive research he has identified several diagnostic tools to assess the level of disaffection and provide a baseline from which to start to repair the damage.
Young People are involved in this Centre. The have an opinion and a say. Focus groups and discussions with individual young people have been used at all stages of the planning, implementation and development of the Centre and their views have been taken on board. This provides them with ownership of the Centre and being involved in the decision making process empowers them, resulting in the capacity to maximise their potential. Monitoring of the facilities and provision ensures that young people remain involved in the consultation process.
The young people who use the Centre are from the group who have been disengaged in the formal education system. They would not continue to attend if they did not find the environment comforting and welcoming. Attendance rates at the Centre are exceptionally high in a client group where attendance at educational establishments has been traditionally and consistently low.
Methods of Delivery
Unlike some mainstream provision, delivery sessions are enhanced by the ability to be flexible. Discussion is often the best tool for recognising and diagnosing issues to be addressed. Delivery methods focus on curiosity, challenge, interest, discussion and planning and promote personal and social skills, thinking skills, problem solving abilities and empathy. Young people who have become disaffected with just about every system they have met do not usually respond to psychometric assessments. Delivery styles at the Centre increase confidence, self esteem and communication skills and focus on soft outcomes, which have been a significant factor in achieving the hard outcomes outlined above.
This case study illustrates the way the Connect Centre is able to effect change and impact on a young person’s development, achievements and progression.
K’s father left home when he was a baby after physically attacking him and his mother, and K has never seen him since. He witnessed the physical abuse of his mother by subsequent partners and has also disclosed that he was both physically and sexually abused although he has never spoken to anyone about specifics, or about how this has affected him.
When he was 10, he and his siblings were placed in care on a temporary basis while his mum was in hospital. Afterwards, the siblings returned home, but his mum refused to have K back. He has subsequently had 8 foster placements, some of whom have physically abused him.
Having not attended school much, K left with few qualifications and has always been labelled with low literacy levels. He continued contact with his mum and siblings though he recognises that his relationship with his mum is “unconventional”
K was referred to the Centre on a Life Skills programme having identified an interest in IT. He regularly smokes cannabis (supplied by his mum). He is against “hard” drugs and argues that cannabis is less addictive than cigarettes and less destructive than alcohol. K is very anti-establishment, frequently swears, and can be verbally aggressive. He would rather walk away from an opportunity if he has to compromise his individuality in any way.
K is very intelligent and can form sound and reasoned arguments. He is sensitive, non-judgemental and extremely talented, although he becomes easily bored and de-motivated. He has also, very recently, begun to talk for the first time about the abuse he suffered as a child.
He has now begun an HND in photography and digital imaging at College. He is living independently (with financial support from the Leaving Care Team), and has a long term career plan. He has a girlfriend and has built a strengthening relationship with his Mum and siblings. He no longer uses drugs. K has a substantial and impressive portfolio of art and photography work and has sold some of his work to help finance his College course.
How this was achieved:-
The Centre was able to offer K time to build relationships and trust. He was not rushed to divulge information and was not judged about his appearance, his achievements or his opinions. He was actively encouraged to explore his points of view and, through a process of discussion, debate and challenge began to realise that his opinions were valid and important. He found an area of interest that he was encouraged to pursue and this led to the production of work that was very positively received and recognised. He learned that he would not be judged on his mistakes and that he could develop at his own pace. Working to make these changes with K did not take a significant amount of financial input, but did take a long time.
The positive affirmation that K has achieved for his work has gone a long way to increasing his confidence and encouraging him to look outside his previously insular life style to progress. One method of celebrating his achievements was his participation in an exhibition of Connect Centre media projects which was attended by workers from a host of agencies, and participants friends and families. Here are just some of the comments received:-
“Well done – some excellent stuff”
“Amazing – such talent”
“Absolutely brilliant. Particularly liked the photos”
“Great photos, really good artwork and ideas – well done”
“Out of this world”
“Project to be proud of”
“An excellent promotion of your work”