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Chance UK: bringing hope to vulnerable children - August-03-12
Source: The Telegraph (Gavin Knight)
A year ago, in the worst riots for a decade, over the course of five days and across 66 different areas of England 15,000 people caused half a billion pounds worth of damage. Gracia McGrath, the chief executive of the mentoring charity Chance UK, witnessed the first uninterrupted night of rioting from her home in north London. 'I felt scared,' she said. 'Then I thought, if I'm scared, how do our kids feel? They felt frightened seeing their communities go up in flames just like I did. I was asked a thousand times what the causes of the riots were, but only three times what the solutions were.'
Five months later McGrath was invited to give evidence to the Riots, Communities and Victims Panel, set up by the Prime Minister in the wake of the riots. 'I was surprised that the Riots Panel listened to what people were saying and recognised the importance of early intervention. It showed how far we had come as a nation - that they finally understood that we need to think long-term.'
The report, published on March 28 this year, concluded, 'Early intervention is key because of the excellent outcomes it delivers,' and that raising children's aspirations and building their character is key in preventing them from being excluded from society. Of those rioters whose cases were taken to court, half were under 21, and two thirds had some form of special educational need.
Chance UK mentors five- to 11-year-old children with behavioural difficulties. Since it was set up in 1995, in Islington, north London, by Ruthven Horne, a police officer who noticed that many of the children he encountered went on to be young offenders, almost 2,000 children have been referred to it by the police, schools and social services. It now operates in four London boroughs: Islington, Hackney, Lambeth and Westminster. While other charities provide mentors, Chance UK provides one-to-one mentoring for primary schoolchildren at risk of developing antisocial or criminal behaviour in later life.
The youngest of eight children, McGrath was brought up in a three-bedroom council house in Knotty Ash in Liverpool. Her father, a shipping master, retired when McGrath was 10; her mother worked in a shop. McGrath suffers from dyslexia - 'I make up words still. I always have someone check what I write before I send it out, because there is a likelihood I would completely make up a word' - and dyspraxia, and struggled at school. By the age of 13 she was taking a speed-like prescription appetite suppressant and smoking cannabis. At 16, after a loud, swearing tirade during her English literature O-level examination, she was expelled. The reference the school provided described her as a 'borderline personality disorder, criminal, on my way to prison', she said.
McGrath worked in the voluntary sector for 10 years as she tried to make it as a stand-up comedian. 'All my family were in volunteering,' she said. 'My two brothers, Rae and Lou, were co-laureates of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997 as co-founders of the International Campaign to Ban Landmines.' In the early 1990s she got a job at the help-for-carers charity, Carers UK, as a project worker, rising to become the director of the Islington Voluntary Action Council, which provides services to voluntary groups. In 2001 she became the CEO of Chance UK.
Chance UK matches 140 children to mentors each year in London and closes the waiting-list at 200 children. 'We know that some gangs are waiting for kids to be excluded from primary school because that's when they are at their most vulnerable,' McGrath said. 'People just don't believe that, and that's the frightening thing. It haunts me that we're working with primary schoolchildren who are already carrying knives.'
The first time she came across an eight-year-old being permanently excluded from school for carrying a knife was in 2005. 'This was a significant case because it prepared us for what came later,' she said. 'The children haven't changed but their environment and the level of danger that they are in has changed. Now it's not uncommon for an eight-year-old to carry a knife. But it becomes a vicious circle: the more children hear about it, the more likely they are to carry a knife. We started to understand that our children were afraid of where they live. Their knowledge of gang activity was much higher than you would expect for an eight-year-old because they lived in these tiny worlds where one person was king.'
But the case that haunts her is a child who refused mentoring after a couple of sessions, saying it was too childish for him. 'His mum said he was the man of the house and he could make his own decisions. He was eight. But that is what we want to do - to remind eight-year-olds that they are children, that they can go on swings, go to museums, do those things, because there's pressure on those kids to grow up so quickly. A lot of our kids have witnessed things that you would not believe an eight-year-old could have witnessed. His school was very worried about him, with good reason. At 13, as part of an initiation ceremony, he was involved in a gang rape, and by the age of 14 he was in court. It's one of those things where you just think, could we have stopped that happening, could we have stopped that child's involvement?'
The mentors meet with the children once a week, for a few hours at a time, over 12 months. They help them to find more positive ways of interacting with their teachers, family and friends. They show them fun places and activities they may not have experienced, giving them a break from often difficult home lives. Chance UK's method is to focus on the child's strengths, not dwell on their negative behaviour.
McGrath is clear that the mentoring needs to be one-to-one and the mentor's life, family and friends have to be kept separate. When she joined Chance UK the dropout rate for mentors was very high. 'We undersold it. We said, be a mentor two to four hours a week. But we didn't tell them that you will also need to write up, to plan, you think about that child, talk about them. You are being supervised. It has an impact on your relationship with your partner and family.' The training is a rigorous three days, in which the mentors are taught the solution-focused approach: how to nurture a child's positive qualities, steer them away from confrontation and help strengthen their relationships both at home and at school. The mentors are constantly reminded of the level of commitment needed and the impact on those around them.
McGrath has a team of seven programme managers (which will rise to nine in September). They supervise the mentor from the first introduction to the graduating ceremony; they liaise with hard-to-reach families to bring them back into the community and provide them with support services if they need them. Her team vets the mentors extremely carefully. One woman asked for 'an eight-year-old boy who was good at maths' just like her son, who had died. Others want children who 'will be grateful'. 'I worry about the ones who want to ride in on a white charger and save a poor kid,' McGrath said. 'Sometimes the child can form too strong an attachment to the mentor and we have to provide other support services to the child after the end-date.'
Chance UK takes referrals from any of the 45 primary schools in Islington. I visited Duncombe School, which refers pupils each year, with McGrath, on one of her many field trips. 'Barrie is an outstanding head teacher,' McGrath said of Barrie O'Shea, 60, who joined the school 23 years ago as the sixth head teacher that year. He was told it was the most failing school in the country. Ofsted's 2011 report assessed it as being 'a good school with many outstanding features'. More than 90 per cent of the pupils are on free school meals, compared with a national average of 16 per cent.
As I walked through the playground, children bounded up to hug O'Shea. He is a keen supporter of Chance's work. 'It makes them feel they are the centre of attention. Most of them are extremely responsive,' O'Shea said. 'There was one young man who was extremely challenging. He lived with a single parent who was at war with the world. The first time I met him he was causing trouble at the desk of a high-street bank with other boys, being menacing and showing real attitude. He had a Chance mentor. Last I heard of him he's now a solicitor working with legal aid. Over the course of the year the children become more self-confident and happier in themselves that someone has cared about them.'
Soon after joining Chance, McGrath realised that it was a model that could be applied elsewhere, and now works with a number of partners across the country. Six years ago she set up Chance's first franchise in Liverpool, and the charity has since expanded to Monmouthshire, Withernsea in Yorkshire and Wolverhampton. In May 2012 McGrath won £1 million of Lottery funding to bring the programme into the riot-affected London boroughs of Enfield and Waltham Forest. 'You can expand the organisation in a very cost-effective way and train people to use the model,' she said.
McGrath is inspired by so many successful outcomes, but one case particularly stands out. 'There's one young lad who came to us when he was nine,' she said. 'His ambition was to be a gangster. His mum had been in care and prison and so had his half-brother. He lived in a gang area and was constantly in trouble, dressing and talking like a gangster. During his mentoring we saw he had natural leadership skills and we built on them. By the end of the mentoring period he had become a peer mediator at school, resolving conflict in the school himself rather than it going before the headmaster. He was really clever with an exceptional ability in science. Now he's 11 and going to a new school. His whole mindset has changed. His ambition now is to study science at university and he's working hard towards that. The school, his mother, have all bought into it.
'We are preventing the riots of the future,' she added. 'No matter what the politicians say, our children do not know right from wrong. We are giving them enough self-confidence to stand up and say, no, I'm not going to rob a shop. It takes an awful lot of self-confidence to avoid peer pressure to be involved.'
Claire Burns, 32, is a window-dresser for a high-street store. Since September last year she has been mentoring Liam, eight. He is one of seven children from Finsbury Park, north London. Liam was referred by his school after he became increasingly frustrated and angry, fighting for attention with older brothers. Struggling with his reading and speaking, he was two years behind at school with a poor attendance record.
'I was sharing a flat in north London with a couple. I wanted a weekend activity to become more independent,' Burns said. Chance felt that Liam needed another female role model in his life as he has four brothers as well as his mother and father.
'He couldn't concentrate on library books, so I made reading more fun with treasure hunts in the park. Liam has a lot of energy, so nearly all our sessions are activity-based. We go to the park and we race each other, timing personal bests, encouraging him to be the best that he can.' Each week Burns prints out photos of their trips for them to stick in a scrapbook and Liam writes the captions.
'Mentors are trained to give praise that is specific, so after a trip to the National Portrait Gallery I praised his self-portrait for keeping the colour inside the lines. This has steadily built his self-esteem. In the eight months I've been mentoring him, Liam has gone up two reading bands at school and become much calmer at home; he helps his mum out with her new baby and his younger brother. He looks up to me rather than the older boys on the streets that his mother doesn't allow him to hang out with.'
Zander Levy, 28, is a script editor at a film company in Soho. He has been mentoring Shaun, eight, since July last year. Shaun lives on the edge of a housing estate in north London with his 28-year-old mother, a single parent, who works as a waitress in a cafe. He was referred to Chance after he became angry at school and stole from the classroom; school staff feared that he was going to be drawn into gang activity.
'I like to surround myself with energetic people so I said I would like to be matched with someone similar, who had a lot of enthusiasm,' Levy said. 'The relationship has evolved over time. When he was going through a tough time at school - getting into fights, being excluded - we talked about it. I made him understand that he was the one losing out by reacting, and that he was bigger and smarter than that.
'Sometimes our outings did not go as planned. A few months into mentoring, I was given two tickets to an England game at Wembley. Shaun was not interested in the game but fascinated by the Dyson Airblade hand-drier in the gents. He'd never seen one before and went back to visit it 10 times in the second half.
'In time I realised it was best to involve Shaun's huge passion for dogs. Our best sessions are on Saturday mornings when we ride our bikes in Finsbury Park identifying breeds we see.' Levy has taught Shaun to have fun, and to be adventurous without getting into trouble. Shaun has begun to thrive. By the end of several months of mentoring, Shaun's behaviour improved so dramatically that he was invited to have tea with the headmaster.
Levy's friends tease him that he mentors to impress girls, but his motivation is deep-rooted. 'When I was younger I was a tricky teenager,' he said. 'I was suspended from school a couple of times and got arrested for carrying a BB gun when I was 13, but I had a support network, private school and two loving parents, which meant I could go off the rails and the consequences would never be that severe. You make loads of mistakes when you're young, you're just figuring things out. If you're in a vulnerable place and not blessed, the consequences can be really severe.'
Nick Montagnon, 42, is an investment banker at HSBC in Canary Wharf. He has been mentoring Danny, seven, for the past year. Danny, who lives in Edgware, was referred to Chance because his school and mother were worried about him: he was painfully shy, and needed help understanding and expressing his emotions.
For Montagnon, the three-day training was an indication of how challenging mentoring would be. 'You are trained on everything from what to do if you feel a child is being sexually abused to how to keep a child interested,' he said. 'I walked into the interview thinking, I'm a dad, I can do this, but they asked me quite a few difficult questions. What would you do if you were picking up the child and there was violence going on in the house against the child? I thought, this is actually really testing stuff.
'I have two daughters, eight and 11. I'm one of these classic divorced parents who sees them only at weekends and birthdays. After I got divorced I had a lot more time so thought, I can either go out with my friends a bit more, or do something useful. I was interested in early intervention because if you grab them when they are young, and instil some discipline then it is very powerful.
'The matching process takes some time. So by the first meeting at Danny's house I was very excited. My programme manager, Julia, introduced me. Danny's mum also has three daughters. It was quite difficult because he didn't really say that much, but we talked about some of his favourite programmes: EastEnders, Britain's Got Talent.'
The training taught Montagnon to treat Danny like a friend's child on a day out. 'Keep on being positive, keep on smiling. Treat him in a consistent fashion. If he's a little bit unhappy, just try to build him up. The first three months are a rapport-building period. Then you have a meeting with the mum, my programme manager at Chance and Danny and look back and say what you've done, what's been fun and plan the next nine months.'
Before the mentoring, Danny had rarely left his local area, so with Montagnon he investigated a London that he never knew existed: the first time they went to a climbing wall he found it too difficult, but months later he was buzzing when he made it to the top. 'When we first went swimming together he loved it so much we spent three and a half hours in the pool. On a subsequent trip to the pool we put three floats together, two white, one yellow. We said it was surfing the cheese sandwich. Moments like that are very special.
'Every session that we have, Danny has to talk to a stranger, order something or ask directions,' Montagnon continued. 'In an evening session if we go down to the local cafe and play dominoes, I'll give him the money to order some coffees. The first time I did it I was behind him, edging him forward, but now he walks up there with a strong voice.'
After eight months of mentoring, in April, Danny and Montagnon attended a boys-only drama workshop organised by Chance UK. 'On the second day he was bounding into the room and high-fiving everyone and I was standing there like a happy, smiling parent.
'Apart from my friends at work it's rare that I see someone every week. We [Danny and he] have got a great relationship, we like each other very much and it's going to be tough not seeing him. I'm like a friendly uncle, I like to think.'
All the children's names have been changed.
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