cell door A national project is helping young people with learning disabilities or communication difficulties who are at risk of offending to enhance their life chances. Katy Palmer reports.

When Javid, 16, was given a police caution, it provided the spur for him to turn his life around. “I was given a police caution two years ago for assaulting another pupil at school,” he says. “I got in a fight, but I don’t really know why. 

“The police came round to my house and arrested me. I was really scared and shocked – it messed me up – I didn’t want to be there. We went to the police station and they interviewed me.

“Since then, I have tried to change. People labelled me after that. It is hard to get away from that.”

As part of trying to change, Javid joined Raising Your Game (RYG) in Hertfordshire in January 2011. RYG is for young people aged 14–25 with a learning disability or communication difficulty who have been in trouble with the police or are at risk of getting into trouble.

RYG is a Big Lottery-funded project delivered by learning disability charity Mencap in partnership with crime reduction charity Nacro and children’s community charity I CAN.

“I joined RYG through my school,” Javid says. “We do our sessions after school.

“It has made me more open. I think about things and I choose my words more carefully now. I really enjoy it.”

A week in the country

Javid was among 15 members of RYG who worked towards their Duke of Edinburgh’s Bronze Award in 2011. As part of the expedition section of the award they had to complete an outdoor adventure, comprising two days and one night away. For many of the young people involved this was the first time they had left the city or town where they lived for more than a day, and the first time they had been camping.

Javid (right) working towards his Duke of Edinburgh Award

The young people had health and safety briefings and learned about cooking on stoves, map reading, how to put up and take down tents, plotting and planning a route, basic first aid and The Countryside Code.

They also built on their teamwork skills, improved their confidence, increased their stamina, overcame challenges and achieved personal milestones.

“The event more than achieved its goals,” says Heather Ribalta, RYG regional co-ordinator for Avon and Somerset. “One young lad in particular had previously undertaken his Duke of Edinburgh and not made it past the expedition. Just completing his week gave him increased confidence. The group as a whole became confident in their newfound skills and abilities.”

Javid adds: “When we did the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award expedition I met new people and it made me realise I want to think more about the sort of people that I hang out with. 

“I learned how to use a compass and a map. I didn’t realise how hard it would be, but it gave me a real sense of achievement when I had done it. I met some really cool people, but also learned to try and get along with people that are a bit different to me.”

Influencing services

As well as helping young people like Javid, one of the aims of the first phase of RYG, which ended in October 2011, was to get young people with a learning disability to influence the services they use.

It culminated in the development of participation guidelines, which help young people to take part in decision-making within these services.

Another objective was the development of Talk about Talk. This is RYG’s introductory training workshop for organisations looking to employ staff with a learning disability or communication difficulty. It’s also for professionals working within the criminal justice system who want to learn more about supporting young people with a communication difficulty.

The training has been developed by I CAN, together with the young people involved in RYG. The young people will also be central to its delivery.

Talk about Talk training in KentTrainee youth workers from Hertford took part in the training pilot; “I’ve done disability training before, but this was much more to the point. Other courses informed me, but this showed me,” says Jo Collier, a trainee social worker.

Young people at the heart

National learning disability consultant Alex Heywood explains how he has been ensuring that RYG achieves its goals.

“I was asked to complete a quality assurance assessment for RYG. I worked with 36 young people from the different groups, asking them questions and filming their answers. I asked them how RYG has made a difference to their lives – had they become more confident, developed new skills or influenced services?

“Comments included: ‘I have learned how to communicate with and listen to other people,’ and ‘we talk to each other and I’ve made good friends’.

“This was important because it’s about listening to the young people and finding out what differences the project has made. Visiting the groups also helped me gain confidence in the work I am doing, which is very important to me.

“All the information I’ve collected will be put together in a report. This will be shared with the project staff and partners, so they can hear what the young people are saying about the project. Then they will know if they need to make any changes.

“This quality assurance work will take place twice a year.”

Phase 2

RYG has now entered phase 2 and over the next three years will deliver life coaching for those at risk of offending, in partnership with Nacro.

This course will have five modules relating to the things young people think are important in their lives and might reduce the risk of them offending.

For example, the ‘People in my life’ module looks at understanding who may be involved in a young person’s life, the differing relationships they have and how they can access support.

These ‘My life’ courses have been developed with the young people from the first stage of the project.

Whether working towards a Duke of Edinburgh Award, or assessing the project themselves, RYG includes young people at the centre of all its work.

Planning for the future

More than anything, RYG has helped people like Javid. He now has ambitions and is making a difference in his local community.

“I have just started volunteering at a residential home for people with a learning disability,” he says. “We are going to be gardening and maybe painting. On my first day, we went into the basement and got loads of boxes out. We broke them all up and then packed them, ready to go to the tip.

“It has made me feel like I’m doing something good. I think it will help me realise that a job is a job – it is not always fun, but you have to get used to it.

“I hope it might help me get to university one day, and get a job. It will show people that I can stick to things, and that I can be trusted.”

About the author

Katy Palmer is marketing officer for Raising Your Game.

This article first appeared in the February/March edition of Learning Disability Today. For details of how to subscribe to the magazine, click here