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36 JANUARY 2002
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Mark Smith considers good policies and some realities of practice

If nothing else, working with youth keeps you active. Since moving from practice to the university setting, I have missed out on the regular games of football, exercise and dance classes or cycling which we tried to build into the programme of the centre I managed. These for me were some of the attractions of the work that made it unique. It wasn’t just self-indulgence though. One of the most powerful ways we can influence and potentially change young people’s lives is by engaging with them in shared activities.

Activities for me were never just an add-on to fill or structure the day; they were fundamental to the group care task. Bill Shankly, a great former manager of Liverpool Football Club once described football as “socialism without the politics." I think I know what he meant. The football field can be a great leveller, an opportunity for youth to shine and outshine the staff playing alongside them. Properly managed, football can instil a common purpose, a sense of achievement, cooperation and fair play, all of which can carry over to other areas of a young person's life.

I have taken boys all over Scotland to play football. Once a year we would play an “international” match in England, setting out in the old school bus for a weekend away that boys and staff who ever went still remember fondly. The highlight of my own career was not promotion, or the opening of new units, but taking a group of boys from a residential school, most of whom had never been out of Scotland, on an odyssey through France to Italy to watch Scotland play in the 1990 World cup Finals.

My recent change of career direction, along with the increasing unreliability of various limbs and joints, means that my football is becoming more stuttering in its regularity as well as its execution. I’ve had to find other outlets to maintain some level of physical fitness. So I joined a club, a lifestyle complex with a massive gym, tennis and squash courts, swimming pool, restaurant and bars. I generally go down towards the end of an evening and work out just long enough to convince myself I’m being virtuous.

* * *

Initially there were a good number of young people around in the club. I imagined it would be a safe and positive place for my own kids to hang out once they hit adolescence. Then the signs started to go up. Under 18s were not to be allowed into the gym or swimming pool after 9 o'clock at night. What is this about? These aren’t difficult kids. In fact most of them are probably pretty privileged. Nor were they blocking facilities, as the place is generally pretty “dead” by that stage of the evening. Occasionally they congregated around the jacuzzi but not to the extent that anyone who could put up with listening in on earnest discussions about who fancied who, should feel they were being excluded.

This small example seems to be indicative of wider trends to exclude youth. At a policy level there is an increasingly retributive emphasis on youth crime. At the other end of the spectrum, the child protection agenda ascribes to youth a role as victims or potential victims of adult crime, to the extent that schools and youth organisations are instituting silly injunctions proscribing adults and young people from participating together in a variety of sports activities. Where stands The Scottish Executive’s major policy plank of social inclusion? Are youth not to be included or is inclusion contingent upon their matching up to prevailing political conceptions of “citizenship? in a continuity of human need and indeed human imperfection? Or notions that we as adults might even have some role in the rites of passage of youth to adulthood.

To assert and act on such beliefs would involve us in giving of ourselves at times, of being with rather than doing to kids, of taking risks and being supported in these. If we don't do any of this, social inclusion becomes empty rhetoric. If we continue to hide behind current obsessions around youth crime or “safe-caring” we stop viewing young people as works in progress. We focus fearfully on their behaviours and seek futilely to regulate these. And we then bemoan the fact that they don’t buy into our values!

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