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Growing up I quickly realised that the education system for some individuals wasn’t a nice place. In a world where too often we focus on exam results and for children to learn it and repeat it, too many children have been unable to have their own personal needs met.

I myself struggled within education and the lack of help from adults who I was supposed to look up to was alarming. I struggled to build meaningful relationships with adults, as many teachers looked at me as the ‘class clown’ and made no real attempts to help me with the other issues that were impacting upon my education. Growing up I found that because a lot of things came naturally to me, I never wanted to make any real effort towards my improvements. I continued to drift through the years, always scoring high but never quite high enough to where I was supposed to be. Never was I pushed or motivated by any teachers willing to look hard enough at the real problems I was facing outside of education. In year 11, after I had just received great GCSE results, my head of sixth form proceeded to tell my new head teacher that “this boy could choose any Russell group uni he wants, but I guarantee he goes to the university of class clowns”. Now although a lot of the laziness and complacency was my own doing, I am struck by the realisation that not once did any teacher throughout my journey even strike up a conversation as to WHY! Why did I not try? Why did I continue to find myself in trouble? All questions I could have easily answered, but a lot of teachers were not bothered to ask those questions.

However, at 17, with no clue where or what I wanted to do in life, I was asked if I wanted to help at a brand new local multi-sports camp taking place a five-minute walk from where I grew up. Six years on, with hundreds of lessons learned and over a thousand children through our doors we have created a nurturing culture in which we can begin to help those individuals that really need it. Looking back, I truly believe that starting with this club has created the person I am today. It has enabled me to grow not only as a coach but also as an individual and begun to show me the direction that I want to go in life.

Ballerz is a multi-sports holiday club split across two sites, one in Dagenham and one in Barking. Barking and Dagenham is among one of the poorest boroughs in London, with 50% of the children living within the borough being defined as living in a household within poverty and 17’280 children eligible for free school meals. I have grown up and still live in this area and I have witnessed first hand the effects of what poverty can do to children and young people, and how with no support or guidance how quickly this can turn their lives upside down. Due to this, I have always felt like I needed to help the positive change that was needed and I am now employed directly in this borough, as a Learning Mentor in a small primary school helping children with Social, Emotional, Mental Health (SEMH) issues and behaviour concerns. Many of these children are also those receiving free school meals and a lot of their SEMH issues stem from their unfortunate circumstances.

Last year, Marcus Rashford rightly placed the sheer disregard for these children into the public spotlight. For so long these children had been disregarded and their parents were left to manage however they could. School holidays can be pressure points for some families because of increased costs (such as food and childcare) and reduced incomes. For some children that can lead to a holiday experience gap, with children from disadvantaged families less likely to have access to organised out of school activities whilst also being more likely to have ‘unhealthy’ summer holidays. Many of these disadvantaged families do not have the financial capabilities to keep their children active through the six weeks. Therefore the likelihood is that these children will be stuck in their houses, seeing very little opportunities for exercise or sports activities increase the likelihood of lower health and fitness levels for these lower income families. Society often praises the small percentile of those lower income stars who make it big (Rashford, Sterling etc) however where is the support for all those children? Although coming from low income backgrounds, these are individuals who were placed in professional youth football settings from an early age. What about those children who are on the cusp of professional football? Or those children who have no interest in any sports, and only see sports for their social/health benefits?  A year on and we at Ballerz also want to help. We have teamed up with the Barking and Dagenham council and joined their Holiday Activities and Food Programme (or HAF) in order to give back and help these children.  The HAF programme is a borough run scheme aimed at providing Pupil Premium children with the opportunity to take part in paid holiday activities. Many of these particular children would not have had the opportunity to take part in some of these camps so this programme allows many of them the chance. For those eligible for the funding, the receive a full week free at Ballerz, whilst also having lunch, snacks and water provided throughout the day. During the holidays, a lot of these children because of financial concerns would be unable to participate in much and would most likely be stuck at home, so this is the perfect opportunity for these children to engage in activities beneficial for them. Furthermore, another important point is that these children are not marginalised for being eligible. Half of our spaces at Ballerz are reserved for HAF children, whilst the other half are for paying customers. Children from low income backgrounds often only socialise with those from similar backgrounds, however at Ballerz we have a large mix of children meaning that these low income children are not marginalised and are offered to opportunity to interact with others they may not regularly interact with.

For too long have the SEMH needs of children been ignored in favour of test results and their ‘assumed needs’. Through Ballerz and my work as a Learning Mentor I hope to be able to change this culture and to finally give those children who need extra support the chance to better themselves.