With the recent reopening of schools across the UK, after a prolonged period of closure due to the coronavirus pandemic, this guest blog by Martin Bisp, the Co-founder of Empire Fighting Chance, details how opportunities for charities working in schools have changed. What effect is the ‘new normal’ having on charities and, crucially, young people?
Empire Fighting Chance is a charity first started in Bristol but now working across South Wales and the South West of England. We use non-contact boxing—underpinned by intensive personal development, including therapy and education—to support some of the UK’s most vulnerable young people.
We keep hearing about the effect of the pandemic on the economy, education and people’s well-being but what does that mean in reality for the young people we support and also our organisations as a whole?
Shut out of schools
Like many charities, we work in schools, all day, every day. We specifically work with young people on the verge of exclusion and those that are disengaged, to try and get them back into their education. Since returning to work after the lockdown, we have noticed that schools appear to fall broadly into two camps—those that are carrying on with external visitors and those that aren’t. Whilst local lockdowns, such as those currently affecting us in South Wales, can slightly alter the position temporarily, we appear to be either in schools or out of them. Currently, we are back in around 80% of schools. However, this is something that keeps changing, as many schools continue to review their policies.
Our big worry is for those young people that are struggling. They are struggling because we appear to be facing a perfect storm of increased poverty, which in turn leads to increased mental health issues, which then increases the chances of exclusion, which then further increases poor mental health! What’s more, getting access to mental health services is not easy unless you can pay or you understand the system.
The case for early intervention is clear and yet, as a result of the pandemic, we appear to be moving further and further away from being able to ensure that those who need services early can get them.
Another problem is that school exclusions can lead to vulnerable young people being groomed into gangs, drugs and criminal behaviour. Knife crime is also rising and, within the immediate area of our gym in Bristol, we have had a murder and multiple people stabbed in attacks during the last couple of weeks alone.
Like us, I know of several other charities which access most of their young beneficiaries through schools. They deliver an absolutely vital service. If this uncertainty goes on and they cannot access young people in schools for the next six months, we may lose more and more of these organisations that provide, in some cases, life-saving interventions.
With no desire to sound dramatic, the stakes are very high. Don’t forget that many of these services were once state supported. They have disappeared through years of cuts. There is no back-stop now.
The impact of Covid-19 on young people
I have some real concerns about the long-term effects of the pandemic on young people. Particularly those coming from disadvantage. Often they have less of a platform and therefore, when the media talk about solutions, it is our duty to ensure that they are not forgotten. These are the same young people and families that were hurt by years of austerity and cuts.
It is well documented that the education attainment gap between rich and poor is disproportionate and continues to grow. In a recent article by Richard Adams of The Guardian, research by the National Foundation for Educational Research (NFER) (supported by estimates supplied by teachers) stated that the learning gap between disadvantaged pupils and their peers in July 2020 was 46% bigger than it was a year earlier. However, it also said that 46% was ‘likely to be an underestimate,’ if differences between schools were included.
Something else well reported is that life chances and mental well-being decrease dramatically when young people are excluded from school. A report from Exeter University, published in 2017, stated a bi-directional association ‘between psychological distress and exclusion: children with psychological distress and mental health problems were more likely to be excluded but their exclusion acted as a predictor of increased psychological distress three years later on.’
Funding and the future
We are one of those organisations that has been affected financially by this pandemic. Over the past few years, we have been trying (as all funders encourage) to move away from grants and diversify our income. Until this crisis, I was convinced that it was the best way of lowering our risk but now I am doing some soul searching.
We have lost most of our fundraised income for 2020 and around a third of our income from schools because everything closed so abruptly in March. Thanks to the commitment and generosity of funders, we have been able to continue our support services, both remotely and face to face, throughout the pandemic (just in lower numbers because of the restrictions) and with no job losses.
I fear that continued restrictions, intermittent lockdowns and a risk-averse approach may hurt those most in need. This cannot be right. I feel that the current situation has exacerbated the difference between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’, whilst limiting the ability of the charity sector to support the ‘have nots’.
From my perspective, the next 12-24 months are critical if we are going to prevent any further worsening of the current situation, provide the intensive support people need and still be able to look at a charity sector that is fit for purpose. We need decisions from central and local government that are safe, sensible and take into account those that are struggling. This will help ensure a fairer society for all.
But, despite all the problems and my fears for young people, I also have hope. I have seen how large areas of the sector have pulled together, with funders providing support when it was required. I am hopeful that funders will continue to recognise that core cost funding is the best way of ensuring sustainability. This doesn’t mean funding without reporting, but funding in a way that invests in an organisation is a much more sensible way to proceed.
I am also hopeful that this crisis will make people look at charities like ours differently and realise that chance and circumstance are not always reflective of people’s character. I am proud of what we have achieved over the course of the lockdown and of the selflessness of the team, all of whom made sure that young people continued to get the help they needed.