Sporting and life opportunities for young Londoners

“I’ve always been enthusiastic about sports,” says Katie Couchman, head of impact and training at Greenhouse Sports, a charity that helps disadvantaged young people in London through engagement in sport. “And when I was 17, slightly crazily, I went to volunteer as a coach in a drug rehabilitation centre in Colombia, and I saw the power that sport could have for people. So from that moment, I knew what I wanted to do.” 

Katie oversees the Greenhouse impact framework and is co-leader of the community sports centre which opened as an addition to the charity 18 months ago in Christ Church Cosway Street, a deconsecrated, Grade II listed church in Paddington. It’s used day and night by around 2,000 young people and adults in the area.

Chris Allbut, their director of programmes, had a sports background before becoming a senior leader and teacher in secondary education. His role is to oversee the delivery of all of Greenhouse’s 50 school-based programmes, which involves liaising with teachers and governors, finding the right coach for the school, and getting them to work effectively with the selected pupils.

Chris describes the kind of young people Greenhouse seeks to help. “It could be they have a very difficult and chaotic background, which leads to challenging behaviour. They’re not engaging with school or they’re making bad decisions, which gets them into trouble. They may have some access to sports, but we’re able to offer a much more intensive experience. Their coach may be with them for five years of their secondary education, so they can really have a sustained impact on their life.” 

The Greenhouse model

The schools that partner with the charity need to understand its “STEP” frameworksocial, thinking, emotional and physical skills.

It’s not a coach turning up with a bag of footballs at the end of school and running a session to entertain the kids for a while, it’s a serious, highly structured programme and intervention.

Chris explains that “the core aim with these young people, around 50 of them in each school, is for them to workoften for three to five hours a weekwith a very experienced coach, so they can start to develop. Many of these young people benefit hugely from the programme. They start to exhibit better social skills and decision-making, increased commitment to the programme, and therefore more commitment in school.”

It’s essential to find the right coaches. “We’re probably the UK’s biggest employer of full-time coaches, about 60 in all. We need individuals who have the right skills, and a lot of them have been high-level performers, world-ranked in their sport. But they also need to develop mentoring and administrative abilitywe choose them for their personality and engagement as well as their experience and coaching qualifications.”

Does government understand the power of sport?

Although 90% of Greenhouse’s funding comes from corporate or private donations, their relationship with government is important. “Some recent changes, for example in the Department of Culture Media and Sport, have been really beneficial to us,” says Katie. “A few people there totally get it, and they’re starting to talk our language, which is about wellbeing, individual development, and community cohesion. Altogether, we probably connect with three or four different departments within government, but we do wonder whether they ever talk to each other. For a relatively small charity, trying to navigate government’s conflicting priorities and targets takes a lot of energy.”

Closer to home, “we work a lot with Westminster City Council, and they’ve given us some money and they’re hugely supportive of our community centre, as you’d expect. They’ve embraced it, and it’s a collaboration between us in terms of what we’re delivering and how we can evidence it. But then there are other local authorities, where we may have five or six school programmes running, and it’s hard to get through to the right person. Previously, we might have had a very good relationship, butwith the cutsa lot of sports teams within local authorities have gone.”

Coping with cutbacks

Austerity has definitely been a big problem for Greenhouse Sports, reducing government’s investment in schools and funding for the charity sector as a whole. “You’ve seen lots of sports activity disappear,” Chris points out. “When the money dries up, things get stripped back.” This can be the toughest part of his work.

It’s frustrating when we have an amazing programme and coach, the school loves what we do, but despite this they have to end the programme because of their budget. They’re gutted and the kids are gutted because they’re missing outand we have to close it down and move the coach elsewhere.

According to Katie, “the cuts disproportionately affect kids from poor families, so it means they don’t have anything to do. It’s the area that government needs to focus on. What opportunities are they providing our young people beyond basic education? What else are they doing to allow them to level the playing-fieldto use the sporting analogy?”

Starting the day on a high

However, they have plenty of stories about Greenhouse’s positive effect on young people’s lives. As Katie points out, “a lot of our kids talk about Greenhouse as their second family, and it’s because they’ve got somewhere to go, someone to listen to them, care about them, and do something for them. They feel valued.” 

Chris expresses his admiration for these young people’s achievements. “They’re amazing – they’ll stand up in front of hundreds of adults at our events and talk about their experiences. When I started two years ago, we received a letter from a girl who’d just got into the LSE. And she wanted to thank Greenhouse, and specifically her coach. She’d been excluded in Year 8 and was at risk of exclusion in Year 9. She said that both her brothers were in prison as a result of gang behaviour. But she’d gone to 6th form college, got her grades, and was just starting at the LSE. So, for me, it shows what a young person can achieve if you give them the opportunity, whatever their background.”

He also talks enthusiastically about what tomorrow holds in store. “I’m going to visit a breakfast club – a tennis club in a girl’s school. So, it’ll be twenty girls at seven in the morning, under floodlights, going out and practising tennis. And it still astounds headteachers in new programmes when they realise the level of commitment of these young kids. The rest of their life will change because their attitude changes – and it’s incredible to see.” With achievements like these, it’s not hard to see why Greenhouse Sports is valued by the young people it serves so well.