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Re-engaging disaffected youth through physical activity programs

Rachel A. Holroyd & Kathleen M. Armour
Loughborough University

Paper presented at the British Educational Research Association Annual Conference, Heriot-Watt University, Edinburgh,
11-13 September 2003


This paper reviews a range of literature that attempts to create links between the problems facing and resulting from disaffected, disengaged, and disadvantaged youth, and the role that sport and physical activity can play in ameliorating them. In many contemporary Western societies there are burgeoning academic, political, and public debates about the deleterious state of the nation's youth. Significant social changes, characteristic of a period of late or high modernity, have led to the contemporary problematisation of youth transitions and a growing perception of 'youth-at-risk' (Furlong & Cartmel, 1997; Kelly, 1999, 2001; Tait, 2000). Moreover, the notion of a 'problematic youth' has been promoted and reproduced through media representations and has engendered a condition of 'moral panic' (Willis, 1990; Garratt, 1997). Thus, a focus on the notions of 'youth in trouble' or 'youth as trouble' can be seen to underpin concerns relating to a number of youth issues and practices in contemporary society; for example, youth unemployment, youth crime, truancy and falling attainment levels at school, as well as young people's involvement in unhealthy or anti-social behaviours such as underage sex, drinking, smoking, or drug use. Moreover, these practices are perceived to point to a need for intervention programs designed to provide these 'disaffected' or 'disengaged' young people with appropriate guidance towards achieving the skills, values and attitudes required to make successful and acceptable transitions to adulthood.

The role of schools within this framework is of particular interest. It could be argued that the significant time that young people spend within this social arena means that it is an ideal setting in which to deliver effective interventions. Within England and Wales, the presence of PSHE and Citizenship Education in the curriculum are evidence of the degree to which the school context is perceived to offer an environment in which the interest of disaffected young people can be constructively re-engaged. Added to this, is a growing awareness of the potential of physical education and sport as mediums through which some disengaged students can be reached, and the development of relevant interceding programs (Shields & Bredemeier, 1995; Gatz et al, 2002; Halas, 2002). Specific examples of such interventions include 'Sport Education' (Siedentop, 1994), 'Sport for Peace' (Ennis, 1999) and the 'Personal Social Responsibility Model' (Hellison, 1995), addressing such issues as acceptance, co-operation, and conflict resolution in physical education settings. In this paper, we summarise evidence that points to the value of physical education and sport in reaching disaffected youth, and argue that there is clearly a precedent for the development of further programs that use physical activities, and indeed the medium of the physical education context, to re-engage disaffected students within schools and to enhance their personal, social and moral development.


In recent years there have been burgeoning academic, political, and public debates concerning the increasing number of young people within schools and communities who are being identified as 'disaffected'. Disaffection itself is a complex and multi-dimensional phenomenon that is influenced by numerous interrelating factors, and can be manifested in various ways including disengagement from mainstream activities, disruptive or antisocial behaviour, and involvement in petty crime. Disaffection is currently being identified as a particular problem within schools, where it is seen to be characterised by increased levels of disruptive behaviour, truancy, and exclusions, as well as falling academic standards and non-participation. Through an examination of the literature in this area, this paper will identify some of the problems facing and resulting from disaffected, disengaged, and disadvantaged youth, as well as exploring the role that sport and physical activity can (potentially) play in ameliorating them. Sport and physical activities have traditionally been associated, particularly among the upper classes, with the promotion and reproduction of various character-building values, attitudes and morals (Holt, 1989; Mangan, 2000) and so, perhaps unsurprisingly, are viewed by many as a suitable vehicle for engendering pro-social behaviours. Furthermore, given the significance of sport and physical activity to many young people in contemporary society (e.g. Brettschneider, 1992), in particular boys, it is perhaps easy to understand why they should be lauded as a means of addressing disaffection among young people. This situation is not uncomplicated, however, for as a number of researchers have pointed out, although there is a popular belief that sport builds character, the evidence to support this is somewhat inconclusive. This debate, along with other key issues in and around the notion of 'disaffection' will be explored focusing on the following key areas; defining disaffection, examining the social experience for disaffected youth, outlining policy initiatives intended to re-engage disaffected young people and exploring the role that sport and physical activity may be able to play within this process.

Defining Disaffection as a Social Problem

There would appear to be a clear anxiety among those in positions of power and responsibility within society about the problematic behaviour of some individuals, as well as the need to maintain social inclusion and reduce social exclusion (Tait, 2000; Long & Sanderson, 2001). Central to this, particularly (although not exclusively) in relation to young people, is the issue of tackling disaffection. However, there are considerable difficulties in defining disaffection because researchers have employed numerous terms to define a cluster of behaviours, attitudes and experiences that could be covered by this overarching term. For example, labels such as 'at-risk' (Goodman, 1999), 'disenfranchised' (Riley & Rustique-Forrester, 2002; Kinder et al, 1995), 'marginalized' (Halas, 2001; Moote & Wodarski, 1997), 'excluded' (Steer, 2000), 'underserved' (Pitter & Andrews, 1997; Martinek, 1997), 'troubled' (Halas, 2001), 'delinquent' (Sugden & Yiannakis, 1982), 'alienated' (Halas, 2002; Moote & Wodarski, 1997) and, perhaps most commonly at present, 'disengaged' (Steer, 2000) have all been used to describe elements of disaffection. Moreover, the root causes of disaffection are also perceived to be numerous and interrelated, with some of the primary factors cited as being low self-esteem (e.g. Andrews & Andrews, 2003), poverty (Martinek, 1997; Steer, 2000), broken families (Heathcote-Elliott & Walters, 2000; Steer, 2000); drug use (Witt & Crompton, 1996; Goodman, 1999), unemployment (Long & Sanderson, 2001; Steer, 2000) and involvement in crime (Witt & Crompton, 1996; Martinek, 1997). Heathcote-Elliott and Walters (2000) have suggested that these causal factors can be viewed as falling into three broad domains; cognitive, behavioural and affective, and that 'it is the interaction between these factors and other variables (e.g. personality, behavioural dispositions) which are at the roots of severe disaffection' (p.6). Merton and Parrott (1999), however, are more cautious, and have asserted that there is a need to avoid reductionist explanations that place the blame on either the individual or society. In reference to this, Steer (2000) has noted:

'The variety of ways in which disaffection can be expressed suggests what has been borne out by research into the issue: namely that disaffection is the outcome of a multiplicity of causes, often interrelated, but differing from case to case. Despite being given a common label, it is important to remember therefore that disaffected young people are not all a homogeneous group' (p.2 emphasis in original)

Other researchers have also pointed to the complex, multi-causal, and often highly individualised nature of disaffection, and have highlighted the need not only to take account of diverse behaviours and attitudes but also the varying levels at which they are exhibited. Heathcote-Elliott and Walters (2000), for example, have conceptualised a 'continuum of disaffection' reflecting levels varying between active and passive and mild and severe, while a study by Gwent TEC (1997) has highlighted the need to recognise both the overtly disruptive and the 'quietly disengaged'. In each case, the authors appear to reassert the importance of considering individual differences, and reinforce Steer's (2000) assertion that disaffected young people should not be regarded in a uniform manner.

It has also been noted that 'despite the lack of consensus in definition, one feature common to all reports on the subject is that being labelled disaffected has negative connotations for the individual' (Heathcote-Elliott & Walters, 2000 p.1). It could be argued that the terminology used to describe disaffected young people is perhaps of little importance in relation to addressing the disaffection itself, but the frequency with which authors have highlighted the potential dangers of labelling young people in such a way indicates that this issue of semantics is far from insignificant (Shields & Bredemeier, 1995; Pitt & Andrews, 1997; Goodman, 1999; Halas, 2002). This has led to calls suggesting that practitioners and policy makers should make a distinction between 'defining' and 'describing' young people, and warnings that although using the label 'disaffected' may help to identify a problem 'it should not blind us to the complexity of the causes that lie behind it' (Steer, 2002 p.2). Moreover, Miller et al (1997) have argued that adults working with young people need to accept, understand and allow for the multi-dimensional lives of young people, and the stigmatising influence that labels such as 'at-risk' or 'deviant' can have on them.

The Case of the Disaffected Adolescent

The period of youth, more specifically adolescence, is traditionally considered a significant time in the human developmental process and for the construction of understandings of self in relation to others (Hendry et al, 1993). However, as a period in which individuals make the complex transition from childhood to adulthood, adolescence can also be perceived as a time of 'natural' disaffection in which young people are susceptible to crises in these construction processes and are likely to experience conflict or stress (Heathcote-Elliott & Walters, 2000). A number of authors have expressed concern that, in contemporary Western society, the extension of this transitional phase, in which young people are held between the restrictions of childhood and the increased freedom of adulthood for longer periods of time, has meant that the social experiences of youth are now characterised by intense contradiction and confusion (Kelly, 1999; Wyn & Dwyer, 1999; Smith, 2000, Steer, 2000). The increased individualisation of modern life, which is seen to have 'dissolved' traditional patterns of social reproduction (e.g. the structure of family networks), is itself perceived to have compounded this problem and increased the complexity of the personal and social development process for young people (Giddens, 1991; Beck, 1992; Heathcote-Elliott & Walters, 2000).

The contemporary problematisation of youth transitions has led to a growing perception of 'youth-at-risk' (Furlong & Cartmel, 1997; Kelly, 1999, 2001; Tait, 2000) and has intensified the regulation of, and the intervention in, youth practices and behaviours by authoritative powers. According to Tait (2000), this has resulted in a pervasive condition of 'governmentality', in which young people are encouraged to engage in self-shaping practices in order to comply with societal norms of appropriate or acceptable behaviour. As some researchers have noted, a 'moral panic' regarding young people, focussing on the notions of either 'youth-in-trouble' or 'youth-as-trouble', would certainly seem to underpin concerns about a number of youth practices in contemporary society (Wilson & White, 2001). For example, the problematisation of youth unemployment or rising youth crime, as well as young people's involvement in unhealthy or anti-social behaviours such as underage sex, drinking, smoking, or drug use, among others, are all apparent causes for concern. Moreover, they are perceived to point to a need for intervention programs designed to provide young people with appropriate guidance towards achieving the skills, values, and attitudes required to make successful and acceptable transitions to adulthood (e.g. Heathcote-Elliott & Walters, 2000).

As was noted earlier, such 'multi-faceted problems' (Goodman, 1999 p.10), in association with the rapidly changing social and economic climate of the UK, are perceived to be significant factors in youth disaffection (Sanders & Hendry, 1997). However, it should not be assumed that there is a direct/causal relationship between the complexity of young people's social worlds and the demonstration of disaffected behaviour because, as a number of researchers have pointed out (Heathcote-Elliott & Walters, 2000; Wilson & White, 2001; Holroyd, 2003), the majority of young people are adept at managing an impressive range of demands and pressures without becoming disaffected.

Disaffection in Schools: A Growing Problem

In addition to an apprehension about the general behaviour of young people there have been concerns that disaffection is increasingly becoming a problem within schools. To support this claim politicians, academics and professionals have pointed to statistics on behavioural issues such as truancy, exclusion and educational attainment. For example, it has been argued within recent parliamentary debates that the rate of truancy, as measured by the number of young people who skip school, has risen by 15% since 1997, and 25% in secondary schools specifically ( The number of formal exclusions from school has also seen a rise in recent years, with recently released figures indicating that 9540 young people were permanently excluded from schools last year, an increase of 4% between 2000/1 and 2001/2 (DfEE, 1999; DfES, 2003). These figures are particularly worrying in the context of research which has shown that two out of three young people who are permanently excluded from secondary school will never return to full-time mainstream education (McConville, 1998). For those who are attending school, however, the picture is not necessarily brighter. For example, it has been suggested that schools are 'failing' large numbers of their students and that up to 10,000 young people are simply 'dropping out' of the system at GCSE level (Clare, 2003), meaning that low levels of educational attainment are now common among 15 - 30% of school age young people (OECD, 1996).

Numerous reasons have been cited to account for the incidents of disaffection evident in schools. For example, increased pressures and competition caused by the accountability of schools and teachers with the advent of league tables, as well as the reinforcement of the standardisation of teaching and pedagogy through national assessments, exams and curriculum, have been suggested as key factors in generating disaffection among both staff and students (e.g. Riley, 1998; Lovey, 2000; Riley & Rustique-Forrester, 2000). In addition, a number of researchers have pointed to the difficulties caused by an inadequate or irrelevant curriculum which simply fails to engage young people (Goodman, 1999; Clare, 2003), as well as cultural conflict between home and school (Moote & Wodarski, 1997), a negative school environment (Heathcote-Elliott & Walters, 2000) and the 'marketisation' of schools brought about through recent reforms (Steer, 2000). Moreover, several researchers within the sociology of education have identified the school as a highly structured environment in which both space and time, as well as young people's behaviour, are closely regulated (e.g. Kirk, 1999a; Kirk, 1999b; Wyness, 1999; Wren, 1999), and have suggested that young people's resistance within school represents an attempt by them to seize power in a situation in which they are, essentially, powerless (Dillon & Moje, 1998).

Practical Steps to Targeting Youth Disaffection

The problem of disaffection is a long-standing one, and several researchers have noted that it has featured strongly in government policies across Europe since the 1970's (Heathcote-Elliott & Walters, 2000; Andrews & Andrews, 2003). Closer to home, Long and Sanderson (2001) have commented that tackling disaffection is very much part of the UK government's current agenda on social exclusion, providing the rationale for a great deal of their spending on sport and leisure. The need to address disaffection and social exclusion among young people is based upon a concern for a 'lost generation' which, having been failed by the education and employment systems, has disengaged from society. These young people have been referred to variously as: 'NEET' (Not in Education, Employment or Training), the 'underclass' or 'Status Zer0' youths (Williamson, 1997), and it was believed that they totalled approximately 161,000 in 1999 (Social Exclusion Unit, 1999). Various initiatives and policies have been designed to support and re-engage these young people, for example New Start, New Deal, Learning Gateway, the Connexions Service, Positive Futures, Youth Offending Teams, Youth Inclusion Programmes, Neighbourhood Support Fund (see Steer, 2000 for further information on these initiatives), and pupil referral units (PRUs). In addition, there are several programs, funded both by government departments and independent organisations, that have been developed to occupy young people in positive (and pro-social) ways in their spare time; e.g. the 'Splash' schemes and activities run through the Youth Charter for Sport ( or Youth Justice Board (

Tackling Disaffection through Physical Education

Given the developmental goals of the school curriculum, as well as the considerable amount of time that young people spend within educational institutions, it could be argued that schools are significant sites through which to deliver such initiatives. Indeed, the presence of PSHE and Citizenship Education in the curriculum within England and Wales provides some evidence of the degree to which the school context is perceived to offer an environment in which the interest of disaffected young people can be constructively re-engaged. Moreover, when considered alongside the belief that sport and physical activity can help to develop pro-social skills, it is possible to understand the growing appreciation of school physical education as a core context through which disaffection can be challenged. Indeed, several programs that have been specifically designed to develop acceptance, co-operation, responsibility and conflict resolution through physical education settings are already being employed within schools. 'Sport Education' (Siedentop, 1994), for example, is a program that uses carefully structured game situations to help encourage young people to develop physical and organisational skills, as well as build an awareness of fair play, self-responsibility and respect for other players and officials. Sport Education is believed to develop a number of pro-social skills, and it has been argued that programs utilising this model can contribute significantly to the personal growth of young people.

The 'Teaching Personal and Social Responsibility' model (Hellison, 1995) is another example of such a program. It is based largely on the teaching of constructive principles, particularly those associated with personal well-being (effort and self-direction) and social well-being (respecting others' rights and caring about others). These values are seen to represent levels of awareness through which young people progress, and which represent their growing sense of personal and social responsibility; respect, participation, self-direction, and caring. In addition, the model includes an outward-looking element through which the young people are encouraged to apply these values outside of the program itself. This approach is not intended to be taken as a rigid model but rather as a framework to help structure activity programs, and other authors have adopted a similar approach in bringing together elements of various models in order to develop more focussed, relevant interventions. 'Sport for Peace' (Ennis et al, 1997; Ennis, 1999), for example, is based on both 'Peace Education' research (Carson, 1992) and the Sport Education model outlined above (Siedentop, 1994), and includes a focus on equity, inclusion and conflict negotiation as well as developing a sense of self and social responsibility. This program is intended to improve the physical education context for girls, taking the emphasis away from a traditional format, in which boys often dominate (Ennis, 1999), and allowing them to re-engage with physical activities in a more inclusive, constructive and cooperative environment. These programs are all built upon the principle, alluded to earlier, that sport and physical activity are ideally suited to facilitate personal, social and moral development in young people. The following section explores the debate surrounding this belief in more detail.

Physical Activity: A Vehicle for Addressing Disaffection?

Sport science, physical education and health education are seen by some to have great potential to address a number of social problems in contemporary society such as poor health, depression, violence, crime and general well-being; i.e. several of the factors perceived to contribute to disaffection (e.g. Burt, 1998; Lawson, 1997; Hellison et al, 2000, Robertson, 2000). More specifically, a number of researchers have commented that physical education is a highly appropriate context for the promotion of sociomoral development (Miller et al, 1997) and personal and corporate responsibility (Wild, 2002), and that in this respect the discipline has much to offer other areas of the curriculum. As Shields and Bredemeier (1995) have noted, 'physical education is probably the most significant physical activity context for developing moral character' (p.199). However, it has also been argued that physical education is not contributing much to addressing the problem of disaffection, despite its potential to do so, and that the PE context can be, for many pupils, an environment conducive to alienation (Ennis, 1999; Williams & Bedward, 2001; Flintoff & Scraton, 2001; Flavier et al, 2002). Halas (2002), for example, has commented that PE teachers need to 'more reflexively consider the type of social climate being created each day in their schools and gymnasiums' (p.268) because traditional physical education contexts can represent situations in which young people see no purpose, fear failure, experience destructive relationships with teachers, or learn irresponsibility through a lack of agency. These conflicting views give something of a glimpse into the undoubtedly complex body of opinion that abounds in this area.

Belief in the potential of sport and physical activity to develop character and promote pro-social behaviour is primarily seen as emanating from the public schools of 19th Century Britain. The practice of muscular Christianity and the 'cult of athleticism' were seen as the means by which positive virtues could be instilled in pupils. Such was the power of this creed that it spread, disseminated via the Empire, to all corners of the globe and the principle of sport as a tool for social development became entrenched as something of an established 'truth'. Moreover, it has been strong enough to stand the test of time and so is still evident in contemporary social thought. Several researchers have noted how the therapeutic properties of sport are accepted unconditionally by practitioners and policy makers alike (Coalter, 1988; Long & Sanderson, 2000), and this is evidenced in the way that they often form the cornerstone of key policy documentation. For example, in his introduction to the government's Policy Action Team 10 report, which examined the role that the Arts and Sport play in tackling social exclusion, former secretary for Culture, Media, and Sport Chris Smith made the rather grand claim that:

' and sport can not only make a valuable contribution to delivering key outcomes of lower long-term unemployment, less crime, better health and better qualifications, but can also help to develop the individual pride, community spirit and capacity for responsibility that enable communities to run regeneration programmes themselves' (p.2).

While not disputing the fact that there is an element of truth in what he says, after all there is some evidence to support his claims, there is perhaps a need to qualify such strong statements more carefully. As this paper now illustrates, this issue is not clear cut and considerable debate abounds as to the precise ability of sport and physical activity to re-engage disaffected youth, the optimum conditions required for success, and the means by which positive impact can be ascertained.

Physical Activities: A Means to an End...Potentially

The growing social interest in tackling youth disaffection has led to a preponderance of programs designed to engage disaffected young people through physical activities, thereby aiding their social development. Various activities have been highlighted as particularly effective for this purpose ranging from basketball (Hawkins, 1998), to physical fitness programs (Collingwood, 1997), and outdoor and adventurous activities (Priest & Gass, 1997). Moreover, the list of skills and abilities that such physical activities are portrayed as developing is seemingly endless and includes; life skills (Danish, 2002), self-esteem (Nichols, 1997), team-building skills (Priest & Gass, 1997), personal and corporate responsibility (Hellison, 1995), moral sense (Miller et al, 1997), communication skills (Priest & Gass, 1997), decision making skills (Robertson, 2000), resiliency (Goodman, 1999; Hurley & Lustbader, 1997), empathy (Shields & Bredemeier, 1995), sense of community (Ennis, 1999), problem solving (Moore, 2002), and improved educational achievement (Long et al, 2002).

This volume of interest has, at the same time, led to a concern about the effectiveness of such an approach, and has resulted in the commissioning and publication of a number of key reports and literature reviews in the area of young people, physical activity and disaffection (see DCMS, 1999; Coalter et al, 2000; Steer, 2000; Long et al, 2002; Bailey, 2003). Within the vast body of literature that now exists, there are conflicting views about the relative merits of providing physical activities for disengaged youth, and their ability to promote socio-moral development (e.g. Danish, 2002, Coakley, 2002; Long et al, 2002). In relation to this, a number of authors have highlighted, as a contributing factor, the problematic paradox inherent within the nature of sport itself, i.e. sport as a positive resource in the lives of disadvantaged youth versus sport as an institution characterised by unequal access, competitiveness and commercialisation (Gatz et al, 2002). Moreover, a great deal of the indecision concerning the impact of physical activities on disaffected youth can be attributed to what has been identified as perhaps the biggest failing of programs conducted to date; the lack of systematic research and credible, rigorous and longitudinal monitoring and evaluation (Coalter, 1988; Nichols, 1997; Cameron & MacDougall, 2000; Coalter et al, 2000; Steer, 2000; Long & Sanderson, 2001; Long et al, 2002; Morris et al, 2003). This 'glaring deficiency' (Moote & Wodarski, 1997 p.161) has meant that few programs have been able to identify a clear and sustainable impact upon youth behaviour that can be attributed directly to the activities undertaken, and thus have failed to prove their degree of success.

Despite such diffident views and inconclusive evidence, the majority of researchers in this area do agree that there are potential benefits to be gained by disaffected youth when they participate in physical activities (e.g. Coalter, 1988; Long & Sanderson, 2001; Morris et al, 2003). However, these assertions are usually qualified, being accompanied by various caveats; for example, participation in sport and physical activity can promote positive socio-moral development if...: the focus is clearly on teaching life-skills through them (Danish, 2002), the relationships between individuals are conducive to promoting a positive social environment (Shields & Bredemeier, 1995), the young people feel personally empowered (Coakley, 2002), the intervention is considered in relation to other areas of the young people's lives (Cameron & MacDougall, 2000) or the activities are tailored to the needs of the individuals involved (Andrews & Andrews, 2003). Witt and Crompton (1996) have argued that the prevalence of sport in contemporary youth culture makes it an effective vehicle through which to reach 'at-risk' youth, and the value of sport as an attraction or 'hook', by which young people are subsequently educated 'by stealth' (Steer, 2000 p.18) would certainly appear to be the motivating factor for its inclusion in some programs. However, the above discussion acts as a reminder that the use of sport in itself is not enough (Pitt & Andrews, 1997). Physical activities may well be the catalyst for change but this is not absolutely guaranteed; in other words, it may be more accurate to say that physical activity/sport can be in certain circumstances and for certain individuals, an effective means to an end.

Lessons for the Future

Given the above discussion, it can be argued that sport and physical activities are able, to some degree, to facilitate personal and social development in disaffected young people. As such, there is evidence to support the development of further programs for this purpose; but what are the key lessons to be learnt from the existing literature? Gatz et al (2002) have suggested that:

'...the scholarship on sport suggests that when we choose to work with kids through sports, it must be done intelligently, that is, selectively. We need first to find the current aspects of (certain) sports that are good and useful, build our programs on them, and, then, undertake research to assess whether we achieved our goals' (p.6).

Taken together, the literature relating to young people, physical activity and disaffection would seem to highlight six key themes for closer consideration. These issues are of significance in that they have been brought to light by researchers, policy makers and practitioners working in this diverse field and, as such, they have substantial implications for others involved in the design, implementation, and evaluation of activity programs intended to re-engage disaffected young people.

1. Re-evaluating Current Practice

Given the prevalence of youth disaffection within society in general, and in the school context in particular, there is perhaps a need to reappraise the content and focus of current programs targeting disaffected students and to consider alternative forms of education. As Goodman (1999) has suggested 'when we do not develop new methodologies of instruction, we contribute to greater alienation from success for these very needy youth' (p.84). Developing a curriculum that has greater cultural relevance for young people (Ennis, 1999), using alternative forms of appraisal and assessment (Goodman, 1999), and employing varying teaching methods (Riley & Rustique-Forrester, 2000), have all been suggested as approaches to targeting and addressing disaffection within schools. It is argued that changing policies and curriculum can be much more effective than punishment in the effort to re-engage difficult students (Ennis et al, 1997). It is also suggested that educational communities that are willing to be open about their problems, failures, hopes and aspirations, and who attend to the disparate voices of students, parents, and teachers, are more likely to find ways of creating and achieving success for their young people (Riley & Rustique-Forrester, 2000). There are, perhaps, also some lessons to be learnt for initial teacher training and ongoing continuing professional development. A number of researchers have pointed out that there is a need for teachers to be taught how to be reflective and innovative in their lesson plans (Ennis et al, 1997), to be equipped with the skills required for conflict resolution in physical education (Flavier et al, 2002), and to receive ongoing training regarding managing and addressing disaffected behaviour (Kinder et al, 1999). However, as Armour and Yelling (2003) have demonstrated, whereas physical education teachers are keen to promote personal and social development within PE lessons, most of the professional development available to them is about updating specific sports skills.

2. The Significance of Social Relationships

It has been argued that the social relationships experienced during involvement in physical activity programs are the most significant factor in effecting behavioural change. As Shields and Bredemeier (1995) have noted, 'whatever advantages or liabilities are associated with sport involvement, they do not come from sport per se but from the particular blend of social interactions and physical activities that comprise the totality of the sport experience' (p.184). In other words, it is the social process and not the activity type that is the vital element (Coakley, 1984; Danish, 2002. Long & Sanderson, 2001). As such, it is important to ensure that the appropriate individuals are selected to be involved in the development, delivery and leadership of activity programs targeted at disaffected youth. Coalter (1988) has suggested that one of the key issues for future research in this field is determining what kinds of leaders are most effective in attracting and retaining delinquency-prone individuals. Similarly, other researchers have highlighted the necessity to have enthusiastic, effective, credible, fair and respectful leadership in programs for disaffected youth (Martinek & Hellison, 1997; Riley & Rustique-Forrester, 2000; Wilson & White, 2001; Halas, 2002). It would appear that teachers and leaders who are 'inspired' (DCMS, 1999), 'charasmatic' (Steer, 2000), and above all committed to understanding and tackling the issues associated with disaffection (Goodman, 1999), increase the chances of effecting positive change in, and act as positive role models for, the young people with whom they work (Nichols, 1997).

3. Creating a Sense of Community

The need to engender a sense of community and belonging among individuals has been identified by a number of authors as perhaps the most significant element in any program involving disaffected youth (Wilson & White, 2001; Wilson et al, 2001; Kinder et al, 1995). Martinek and Hellison (1997), among others (e.g. Steer, 2000), have suggested that in order to do this it is important to 'keep program numbers small and encourage participation over several years' (p.43). A number of authors have also highlighted, as a contributing factor in this equation, the importance of involving the young people in key decisions relating to the program. This not only allows them some degree of autonomy and ownership (Goodman, 1999; Riley & Rustique-Forrester, 2000) but also helps them to develop more realistic perceptions of their control over external factors (Andrews & Andrews, 2003) and affords them the respect so often seen as lacking in their interactions with adults (Coleman et al, 1997; Jones, 2002). The use of adult and peer mentoring has also been suggested as a valuable way in which to develop positive relationships with and among young people (Danish, 2002; Morris et al, 2003) although, as Goodman (1999) has noted, mentoring alone is not the answer and needs to be employed in combination with other initiatives.

4. Employing a Multi-Agency Approach

One of the key findings from the literature on young people and disaffection is that sport and physical activity should be regarded as only one element of any intervention approach. Several authors have warned against having unrealistic expectations of sport as some form of panacea that can, single-handedly, solve all social problems (Hartmann & Wheelock, 2002). It is recognised that young people's lives are influenced by numerous factors and, as such, it is argued that any program designed to re-engage disaffected youth should take account of the wider social contexts of young people's lives and social experiences (Coalter et al, 2000; Diana, 2000). As Lawson (1997) has pointed out:

'...children's learning, development, health, and well-being occur in family, neighborhood, and community organizational contexts, and when any of these developmental indicators is threatened, the search for explanations and intervention strategies cannot be limited to the child in isolation' (p.21).

The view that 'joined up problems require joined up solutions' (Merton & Parrott, 1999 p.53), then, would appear to endorse the need for multi-dimensional, holistic approaches to targeting disaffection, highlighting the value of collaborations between different social agencies and making a case for the inclusion of significant others in the design and implementation of intervention programs (Cameron & MacDougall, 2000). Steer (2000) has commented that support services for disaffected young people are, at present, somewhat fragmented, and that there is a need for greater information-sharing and clear communication between all involved. Developing partnerships between key groups of individuals, namely schools (e.g. DCMS, 1999), community agencies (e.g. Kraft & Wheeler, 2002), parents (e.g. Martinek & Hellison, 1997) and the young people themselves (e.g. Steer, 2000), not only allows for maximising the efficiency of resources (DCMS, 1999) but can also help to build bridges and break down barriers. As such, it would appear to be not only important but essential for schools, parents and community agencies to work together to address the issue of disaffection (Goodman, 1999; Riley & Rustique-Forrester, 2000). Moreover, given that effective programs would recognise that sport, recreation, and physical activities are only one aspect of an intervention strategy, there would appear to be strong support for a whole school approach to challenging disaffection (e.g. Kinder et al, 1999).

5. Ensuring Structure and Sustainability

Although, as has been shown, there is evidence to suggest that physical activities can facilitate personal, social and moral development, instil life skills, and generally re-engage young people with the curriculum and wider school life, it has also been noted that there is a need to teach such skills explicitly because they can not be viewed as natural outgrowths of the activity (Shields & Bredemeier, 1995; Danish, 2002). Moreover, given that there is no 'quick fix' solution to the problem of disaffection (Steer, 2000; Coalter, 2002), several researchers have suggested that rather than seeking to address all of the factors contributing to the disaffected behaviour, the focus of any program should be to help build resiliency among young people who daily face difficult circumstances (Hurley & Lustbader, 1997; Goodman, 1999). The need for programs that are properly structured and which take place over time is therefore evident: 'long-term commitment is tantamount to planting seeds of hope' (Martinek & Hellison, 1997 p.35). Several authors have expressed concern over the short-lived nature of some initiatives targeting disaffected youth (e.g. Cameron & MacDougall, 2000; Morris et al, 2003), and have commented that '...initiatives/schemes may take a long time to bear fruit and need to be sustained if the benefits are to be anything other than transitory' (Long & Sanderson, 2001 p.200). All of these comments point to the need for programs that are carefully planned, structured and implemented, long term, and which are, above all, tailored to suit the needs of the individual participants (DCMS, 1999; Goodman, 1999; Andrews & Andrews, 2003).

6. Incorporating Credible Monitoring and Evaluation

As has been shown, the long term influences of physical activity programs for disaffected youth are often unknown, but are necessary for ensuring sustainability and securing continued funding (Long & Sanderson, 2001; Morris et al, 2003). This, then, would appear to point to the need for the ongoing, systematic, structured, and credible monitoring and evaluation of any interventions targeted at re-engaging disaffected young people. It has been argued, somewhat confusingly, that such monitoring and evaluation programs should have clearly defined objectives and criteria for success (Collingwood, 1997; Nichols, 1997; Martinek & Hellison, 1997; Moote & Wodarski, 1997), and should also be fluid and flexible with few rigid rules (Andrews and Andrews, 2003). Steer (2000) has suggested that some of the contradictory findings inherent within evaluations can be seen to reflect these differences of opinion about valid approaches. However, rather than perceiving this as a problem, he has suggested that the real aim should be to ensure that an appropriate balance is achieved between the two.


This paper has provided an overview of some of the literature relating to the areas of young people, physical activity and disaffection, and has sought to establish the relative merits of activity programs designed to attract and re-engage disaffected individuals. It is clear that there are conflicting opinions about the success of such programs caused primarily, it would seem, by a lack of systematic research and credible monitoring and evaluation. Thus, there is support for both sides of the argument but conclusive evidence for neither. However, it would appear that, given the right circumstances, programs including an element of physical activity can facilitate the pro-social development of disaffected young people. As this paper has pointed out, a planned program of carefully selected activities, when implemented with a relatively small group of young people who have had some input into its design, can yield many positive benefits. Moreover, collaborative partnerships between significant groups such as schools, community agencies, and family members can contribute a great deal to this process. To close, it may be helpful to consider the view of Long and Sanderson (2001) who have presented a useful summary to this debate. They have concluded that physical activity programs can be seen to function as a means to an end in addressing social and community problems. Moreover, they have argued that while there is still a great deal of debate about the precise benefits that can be accrued from such programs, this should by no means dissuade those working in the area from developing initiatives and furthering the quest for knowledge.

It would seem, then, that a primary means of moving this debate forward would simply be to find ways of defining and determining impact more precisely. In this respect, the multi-faceted nature of disaffection, combined with the complex interrelatedness of young people's social environments, would appear to point to the need to define elements of disaffected behaviour or attitudes more precisely in relation to each specific program. These elements can then be recorded (either qualitatively or quantitatively) both pre- and post-intervention in order to establish the relative degree of a program's success. Without this clarification of focus, the task of determining which perceptible outcomes can be related directly back to a specific intervention is something of a hopeless task, rather, it would seem, like searching for the proverbial needle in the haystack.


The authors would like to acknowledge that this paper has arisen from research conducted in relation to the Youth Sport Trust/BSkyB 'Living for Sport' project. Further information on both the project and its evaluation is available from the Youth Sport Trust and Institute of Youth Sport respectively. 


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