John Harris

Journalist & Author

What links deprived young people, video games, and the EU?

The LearnPlay Foundation worked with 5,000 neets last year. Not one dropped out. 85% of the money comes from the European social fund

In a room plastered with storyboard plans for computer games, teenagers are clustered around screens. Some are testing ideas, others learning about programming and design techniques. All are from deprived communities in the West Midlands. None would be here if it weren’t for the European Union.

Finding Britons to rhapsodise about the EU can be difficult. Not so at the LearnPlay Foundation, which gets the vast majority of its funds from the European social fund. “I don’t think our foundation could continue to exist unless we had those sources of money,” says Ro Hands, the managing director.

The LearnPlay Foundation is a visionary social enterprise in West Bromwich, a post-industrial town afflicted by last summer’s riots. Founded in 2007, its aim is to “make a difference to people’s lives using games-based technologies” – which entails seizing on the ubiquity of video games, introducing disadvantaged young people to the techniques that lie behind them, and sparking their creative impulses, with a view to altering the direction of their lives.

“Our whole raison d’etre is to work with people from the most deprived communities,” says Hands. “We offer them opportunities: employment opportunities, learning opportunities, accredited learning, work experience … pathways into doing creative and meaningful things that give them a real, tangible output.” The foundation prides itself on working with so-called neets – young people not in education, employment of training, a byword for British social failure – to reconnect them with both the education system and the job market.

For some young people, this is a question of placements at the foundation’s HQ, learning – among other things – programming and design techniques, and also soaking up much broader benefits: not least the appreciation of planning and teamwork, along with increased self-esteem. “I was just out on the streets really; I got arrested a couple of times,” one of LearnPlay’s beneficiaries tells me. “But this place gave me a creative outlook, about where I could go with design and gaming.”

The Foundation also runs outreach programmes, taking its work into the kind of communities where social problems run deep. “You can’t wag a finger and say, ‘That’s naughty – don’t do this’: lots of people involved in guns and gangs think that they represent their family, their protection mechanism,” says Hands. “But we get them doing projects that are creative. And that journey of creation helps them stop and look at their lives and the fact that they have got talents and abilities, and with the mentoring and guidance they can open up opportunities.”

There are two sides to the Foundation’s work: involving people in their teenage years in creating and developing games, but also spreading that work into the wider world, and aiming at other objectives. Games worked up by the foundation’s proteges are used in partnerships with primary schools, to improve literacy and numeracy. Pensioners use applications designed to allay the effects of dementia. And of late, carefully honed program have been piloted by police and social services in their work with the victims of trafficking and child abuse, as a means of opening up conversations that bring forth crucial evidence.

Inevitably, all of this requires money, which brings us to a particularly interesting question: how much of the foundation’s income comes from the European social fund?

“Right now, it’s about 85%,” says Hands. “We all know the political situation at the moment; we all know that government has limited lots of the money given to youth provision. So if we’re not getting money from them, we have to look further afield. You get to know what has to be done.”

Not surprisingly, the current burst of Euroscepticism causes her and her colleagues no little anxiety. “People take the sensational elements of the EU, and write about something like the size and shape of bananas – and that’s the stuff that Joe Public gets to hear,” she says. “And of course, that’s absolutely ridiculous. But there’s nobody saying, ‘Forget that: look at the other things Europe does for member states: look at the money that gets channelled and the things that happen.’ For us, it’s very simple: we’ve worked with 5,000 neets in the last year, and we haven’t had a single dropout.”

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