Targeting The Teens

15th March 2008

Sarah Shephard finds out more about The Greenhouse Schools Project

“Gang attacks teen twice in a week.” “Bermondsey 15 year old stabbed to death.” Headlines like these are designed to shock. But we read them so frequently these days that their impact diminishes. The above captions popped up on a London-focused news website. Both on the same day. So it’s little wonder that we are becoming desensitised, almost resigning ourselves to the horror of such vicious attacks inflicted upon – and often committed by – those who have not yet reached adulthood.

While the police concentrate on tackling street crime and politicians play the blame game – moving swiftly between parents, schools, and readily available cheap alcohol – one wonders whether anyone is planning for the future. For a future where schools don’t require metal detectors at the front gate, and local parks aren't over-run with groups of bored teens, with nowhere else to go and nothing better to do.

The youth clubs of thirty years ago, remembered with nostalgic fondness, are long gone, as are many of the wide open spaces. To be replaced with what, exactly? Purpose-built flats, mostly. Fortunately, though, there are individuals and organisations that are trying to change the situation, and which aim to engage youngsters so that that their lives start to change for the better. And not just for a week or two. For good.

One such outfit is the Greenhouse Schools Project, set up in 2002 by former businessman Michael de Giorgio. Struck by the dearth of sports facilities available to youngsters in certain areas of London, and spotting a link between this deficiency and the increasing number of teenage gangs loitering in the very same places, de Giorgio wasted no time in finding a solution. “Sport has taught me lots of different things, and it can teach other people these things too,” he points out, explaining why he chose this as a means of distracting youngsters from less productive pastimes. “I just have a great belief that sport is a way of teaching people the life skills they wouldn’t acquire otherwise.”

We might scoff at this, bearing in mind tawdry tabloid tales of footballers lured by booze, women and the occasional bar room brawl. But sport isn’t only for professionals who earn thousands of pounds just for showing up every week, it’s also for proving to young people that, given the right attitude, they can achieve things they probably never believed were within their grasp.

When de Giorgio noted that the superb sports facilities at his local private school were left unused for weeks at a time during school holidays, he seized the opportunity. A two week summer holiday programme was organised, allowing non-pupils access to the school's playing fields and equipment. Other independent schools soon followed suit and the Greenhouse programmes began running at the weekends as well as during the holidays. Just one hitch remained. While the facilities were top notch, the location was not always convenient, as de Giorgio soon realised. “We had lots of problems trying to bus people from A to B, because the private schools were in the nice parts of town, and the kids we wanted to look after weren’t.”

So a different approach was needed. The former businessman's ability to see solutions just as easily as most of us see problems led him away from leafy Barnes, in south-west London, to the streets of east and south-east London. The facilities here may not be quite as good, but, in taking projects to where they are needed most, de Giorgio is ensuring he reaches the children he had in mind when he set up Greenhouse.

“We deliberately base our programmes in the areas where we believe we can make the most difference” de Giorgio tells me. “These are kids who are just incredibly vulnerable to getting locked in a cycle of bad behaviour.” The difficult task of breaking this cycle falls to the hardworking team of coaches employed by the Greenhouse Schools Project. Unlike school PE teachers who normally possess a general knowledge of many different sports, these coaches are expert practitioners of just one discipline. With knowledge comes power and as a result of that, the Greenhouse coaches become inspirational figures to those they teach.

Syed explains that an early survey commissioned by the charity showed improvements in punctuality and discipline among the youngsters; de Giorgio adds that they are currently conducting ‘independent scientific evaluations’ to back up these claims.

If a change in attitude is confirmed in those who are lucky enough to find themselves a part of the Greenhouse Schools Project, it will come as no surprise to the man who started it all. From the start, de Giorgio insists, it was never the intention to “provide the next Olympic champion.” He’s quite frank about this. “We’re not interested in playing our best players, we’re interested in teaching long term life skills.” The football team run by Greenhouse in Peckham, south east London, is an excellent example. With 450 members in total, they put out around 18 teams every weekend to compete in various leagues across London. Team selection is based entirely upon the youngster’s attitude, whether they display what de Giorgio quaintly calls ‘old fashioned values’. His no-nonsense approach leaves latecomers in no doubt as to the welcome they will receive when they do eventually arrive for training. “You can be a superstar” he says, “but if you don’t turn up for training in the week, you’re not playing at the weekend. We choose our teams based on different criteria.”

The aim is for the Greenhouse Schools Project to continue its spread, into more schools and reaching more children. Financial backing comes from the hard work of fundraisers like the HSBC workers who completed the Antarctic Ice Marathon last December. And of course there are the events, like last year's summer party at the Clapham Grand and the upcoming Dunlop Masters Table Tennis event which takes place on Monday 17 March at the Royal Albert Hall.

The ticket selling and ice trekking that helps to fund the charity is all very well… but shouldn’t the government also be backing this scheme, which is tackling problems that face communities around the country? De Giorgio believes so, but is determined first to prove to the government that “our model is right, that it works and that they should support us. I’m confident they will in time. But it’s not easy.”

As every good businessman knows though, nothing that is worth having ever comes easily. So de Giorgio will continue his efforts, along with his tireless team of coaches and fund-raisers, for as long as they are needed. And school children around the country will continue in their efforts too. To turn up on time, in the correct kit, and with the right attitude. Or else.
It’s not easy to find the right man, or woman for the job, of course. Along with his determination to select coaches who are talented sportspeople and have the ability to engage with the kids, de Giorgio also requires them to dedicate a large chunk of their time to the job. “We’re working with the full-time model,” he tells me. “It’s 48 weeks a year, and 40 hours a week. So it’s more than working in term time, it’s working in the holidays too.”

One man who has knows the benefits a full-time coach can bring is three times Commonwealth table tennis champion, Matthew Syed. He’s involved with Greenhouse’s table tennis programmes, which have proved particularly successful. They boast some of the best coaches in England, including former commonwealth doubles champion Gareth Herbert, and Gideon Ashison who is responsible for guiding Britain's Olympic hopeful Darius Knight along the path to glory.

“Young people take a lead from inspirational figures,” says Syed, “so we’ve hired people who are not just good at table tennis, but have the skill sets which enable them to enthuse the kids.” This, he tells me, is the make or break element of a project: “It depends,” he says, “almost exclusively on the quality of the coach.”

Providing that the right coach is in place, then, what results have they seen from the project so far?

To find out more about Greenhouse see www.greenhouseschools.org

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