‘Game changer’: Could a €300 voucher transform Irish children’s lives?

Coming out of Covid-19, after-school activities could give a huge boost to six- to 18-year-olds

Young teenage boys train at the the football club Afturelding in Mosfellsbaer, outside of Reykjavik, where national Iceland’s football player Hannes Haldorsson trained as a teenager. Photograph: Karl Petersson/AFP

Young teenage boys train at the the football club Afturelding in Mosfellsbaer, outside of Reykjavik, where national Iceland’s football player Hannes Haldorsson trained as a teenager. Photograph: Karl Petersson/AFP

 

If there was an invisible, protective cloak to throw over your child as they go about establishing their place in the world, what parent wouldn’t want one?

In Iceland it seems they have found one and it is the effect of Planet Youth. A programme designed to reduce risk factors and bolster protective forces in young people’s lives, it has been credited with turning around one of Europe’s worst teenage drink and drugs problems, as outlined in The Irish Times last year.

Now they’re attributing Icelandic successes on the world stage in sport and the arts in recent years to how, in a country with a population of just 360,000, all children and teenagers are given opportunities to flourish through after-school activities.

Surveys back in 1998, among Icelanders aged 15-16 years, showed that 42 per cent had been drunk in the past 30 days; 23 per cent were smoking every day; and 17 per cent had tried cannabis. By 2019, those figures had plummeted to 6 per cent in the first and third categories, and just 1 per cent of them were smoking.

Survey by the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis at Reykjavik University.
Survey by the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis at Reykjavik University.

However, what started out as a prevention programme developed by the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis at Reykjavik University, is no longer talked about in those terms. The focus is on the wellbeing, relationships, lifestyles and environment of children and teenagers who are supported to maximise their talents and, in the process, make better choices.

As you might expect, there are many layers to an initiative that has achieved remarkable results over more than 20 years. When the Western Region Drug and Alcohol Task Force adopted this evidence-based approach for a five-year pilot in counties Galway, Mayo and Roscommon, they started in 2018 by phasing in information gathering to illuminate the pathway ahead.

Taking part in regular, supervised, extracurricular activities is a protective factor for substance use behaviours and has many other significant benefits to young people and society at large

Now it’s ready for what it says would be the “game changer” – an Irish version of Fristund.is, a leisure card scheme that Iceland introduced in 2007. There, an annual voucher worth more than €300 is given to families for every child aged six to 18 towards extracurricular activities of their choice, be it sport, music, dance, art or some other enriching pursuit.

This voucher can be used only via a designated website that lists providers who are trained and approved for youth development. This ensures not only quality control and mentoring through what is being offered but also that the money circulates in the local community, boosting the after-school sector. And youngsters are encouraged to try something new every year, to increase the chances of finding their passion.

Planet Youth co-ordinator Emmet Major believes the leisure card is the “jewel in the crown” that should be implemented into its pilot scheme as soon as possible, to accelerate the benefits. He is confident it will secure funding for a leisure card in its region and has been heartened by the political response, which includes the Minister of State for Disability, the Fianna Fáil Galway East TD Anne Rabbitte, telling a recent webinar that she will be advocating for it.

“It has been transformative in Iceland,” Major says. “Taking part in regular, supervised, extracurricular activities is a protective factor for substance use behaviours and has many other significant benefits to young people and society at large.”

The cheers of Irish fans were probably second only to the Iceland soccer team’s own supporters when 11 players from a country population of less than 360,000 knocked England out of Euro 2016. Backed by fans’ thunderous “Viking clap”, they then became the first Icelandic team to qualify for a World Cup, in 2018.

Dadi Rafnsson of Reykjavik University, who also spoke at the webinar, is in no doubt that the country’s unprecedented success in international soccer in recent years is rooted in a changed landscape for child and youth activities.

Coming out of Covid-19, the argument here for a leisure card investing both in young people and the grassroots economy could hardly be stronger. We have all seen how outdoor, sporty children and those who cater for them have been able to continue group activities, while those whose interests lie in, say, drama, dance, choirs, or Stem collaborations – and their providers – have been reduced to sterile, online versions of the real thing.

If you are a confident kid, you are not going to be bullied. If you build your resilience through being part of something bigger, I think that’s a great thing

Niamh O’Flanagan, a chaplain at Glenamaddy Community School in Co Galway, deals with vulnerable children every day. “Since Covid came along, I would say my workload has doubled with the amount of need out there with regard to anxiety and students suffering.”

She believes this underlines the importance of introducing such a scheme. “They have been in this Covid situation where they haven’t been able to be part of clubs and groups and it is showing, so badly. GAA is great but what about the kid who isn’t sporty? We need to look outside the box and give the arts just as much status as sport.”

As a teacher, she knows the huge value of extracurricular activities. “I have seen so many kids grow in confidence. If you are a confident kid, you are not going to be bullied. If you build your resilience through being part of something bigger, I think that’s a great thing.”

Many of the children suffering with anxiety are the ones who are not part of groups. Photograph: Getty
Many of the children suffering with anxiety are the ones who are not part of groups. Photograph: Getty

It’s about finding their niche and we all need that sense of belonging, even as adults, she points out. Many of the children she sees suffering with anxiety are the ones who are not part of groups. “The sporty kids will always find each other whereas the kid who is more academic and might want a challenge in a different way, they may not have as much of a drive to find each other.

“When you are part of a group and doing something positive – whether it’s the music group or a sporting thing or dance group or karate – you’ve got a collective goal in mind,” O’Flanagan adds. “You’re accepted into this group; it is something you have made an effort to join and I think that does a huge amount for morale for young people.”

The principal of Our Lady’s College in Galway, Cliona Ní Neill, says that as a Deis school, it is a challenge to involve pupils in extracurricular activities. She knows cost is a barrier and has tried different initiatives to try to make them available to all.

For example, they got in a professional volleyball coach who gives free lessons in return for use of the school hall; the school has made other arrangements with a basketball coach and a local rowing club. “It makes the learning easier, school easier, if you can hook them on the sport.” And not just sport, she stresses, but any after-school activity that engages them.

A member of the Galway steering committee for Planet Youth, Ní Neill travelled to Iceland for a Planet Youth conference at the beginning of this year, just before Covid-19 hit. “I was gobsmacked by it – the concept of what they’re doing and the impact it has.”

The leisure card would be a game-changer here, she adds, particularly after the pandemic when household budgets are likely to be tighter than ever for many families.

The principal at St Comán’s Wood National School in Roscommon town, Una Feeley, is also a huge believer in the importance of after-school activities. But the cost is prohibitive for some of the school’s 648 pupils from families of more than 20 nationalities.

If approached by parents, the school can use St Vincent de Paul funding to subsidise children’s participation “but there is a pride thing”, she says. “If we had a leisure card like this it would be fantastic as it would mean activities open to all children.”

Feeley acknowledges that Gaelic sports are good value but believes there is much talent in many other areas that isn’t being tapped. She is also aware of children under 12 going back to an empty house after school and they “would be much better off playing Gaelic or going to music or going to ballet”.

Sheena O’Hehir says she is lucky that both her children all through school at Presentation College Athenry have always enjoyed sport, because there were few other options to occupy them locally in Co Galway. “I have seen fabulous kids fall off the rails,” she remarks.

Passionate about the Planet Youth project, she believes the leisure card would help fund other options to GAA. As a volunteer with Craughwell Athletics Club, she has seen at first-hand the huge positive influence even a very under-funded operation can have on hundreds of children.

With the leisure card scheme, youngsters are encouraged to try something new every year, to increase their chances of finding their passion. Photograph: iStock
With the leisure card scheme, youngsters are encouraged to try something new every year, to increase their chances of finding their passion. Photograph: iStock

Caroline and Shane Keville are hoping to reap the rewards of Planet Youth Ireland’s trailblazing in their locality for their five-year-old son John. “It is a really good initiative,” says Caroline, who believes the leisure card scheme would give John and his peers the chance to be exposed to opportunities and activities they might not necessarily be able to avail of otherwise.

It would also reassure parents that providers were up to scratch with requirements such as Garda vetting, child protection and first-aid training, she points out.

As a “blow in” to their current home outside Tuam, she knows the benefit of meeting people through children’s extracurricular activities. Since getting John involved in the local GAA club, she has developed her own network in the community, which has strengthened her own sense of belonging.

Caroline is confident that when her son is a teenager, there will be more going on to divert him away from risky behaviour. “He will be part of the community; he will have pride in the community; he will have friends and networks.”

Sleep effects

Teenagers who sleep for at least eight hours a night are 11 times more likely to experience good mental health than those who get less than six hours and the latter are seven times more likely to have low self-esteem than their well-rested peers.

These are among the headline findings of in-depth analysis by the Unesco Child and Family Research Centre at NUI Galway of data from the first Planet Youth survey in the west of Ireland two years ago. With only half the teenagers getting at least eight hours’ sleep, the effect of even one hour less on a regular basis is shown to be very significant.

Since November 23rd, thousands of 15-16-year-old students in all secondary schools and Youthreach centres in Galway, Mayo and Roscommon, have been filling in very detailed, anonymous questionnaires about their lives for the second biennial survey. These will be sent later this month to the Icelandic Centre for Social Research and Analysis at Reykjavik University, where data will be collated for individual school and county profiles.

By February next year, every principal will be confidentially informed on how their pupils are faring compared to their county peers on issues ranging from use of social media, bullying and healthy eating to how they rate their relationships with family, friends and teachers and their use of alcohol and other substances.

However, while this gives a useful snapshot in time of that particular age group, that is not why they do the survey, says Planet Youth co-ordinator Emmet Major. It is too late to make significant changes in these teenagers’ social environment.

If you can crack the parenting around bedtimes among the eight to 10 year-old children, the rest in regard to reduced screen times and less risky behaviour will follow

Rather, “it is taking the voice of these young people to improve the situation for the kids coming behind”. The hope is that by the time they become teenagers in 10 years’ time, policymakers will have used the information gathered to have changed the landscape – just as they have done in Iceland.

Major was “astonished” to see the impact of sleep issues that emerged from the first survey. It’s all connected to use of screens and has a huge impact on future school performance, he reports. “Kids hanging around, dropping out of school, not getting on with teachers – a huge amount is related to that.”

Planet Youth is now promoting good sleep hygiene and 9.30pm bedtimes for teenagers through talks for parents, leaflets and even fridge magnets. He is confident that parents feel this is something that is doable, whereas “you can talk all day long about drugs and alcohol” but parents feel that is beyond them.

If you can crack the parenting around bedtimes among the eight to 10 year-old children, he adds, the rest in regard to reduced screen times and less risky behaviour will follow.

Our Lady’s College, a Deis secondary school in Galway city, was already well aware of sleep issues among their 240 pupils, says principal Cliona Ní Neill. When something is not quite working for a particular child and you are asking why, she says, the issue can often be traced back to sleep time.

“We have a home liaison teacher who would often talk to parents about the lack of sleep, the kids are coming in tired and the fact that they are using mobile phones in bed.” With the Planet Youth findings, “it was great for us to be able to say it with a bit more authority”, she adds, and the school has used the material produced to back up their message.

Meanwhile, in the new year, Planet Youth pilots are due to start among 18 schools in Dublin’s Fingal area and 22 schools in the Cavan/Monaghan area.

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