Joanne O’Riordan: Football Beyond Borders takes rounded approach to change girls’ lives

Charity has designed a programme aimed at girls that also develops social and emotional skills

Sitting in on an interview with Football Beyond Borders' Ceylon Hickman, there was a sound behind her I hadn't heard in over a year. It was the sound of children playing on a football pitch, with cheering, crying, and the beautiful sound of a football crashing into a net. Ceylon informed me grassroots sports were given the green light in England on Monday.

According to their website, Football Beyond Borders is an education and social inclusive charity using the power of football to change the lives of young people.

“Football is a brilliant thing to build relationships with young people and to go into school and say this is, you know, the format for which we’re going to be working with you and building relationships,” explains Ceylon, who is the head of impact and female participation at the charity.

“But actually, it’s so much more than that. And once you’re in and you’ve got young people hooked, our work is really intensive relational work, where we work with young people from the ages of 12/13, all the way up until they’re 16.


“We support them to get the grades that they need to successfully transition to adulthood, as well as developing social and emotional skills.

Football Beyond Borders have three core parts of their curriculum. Firstly, there is a social-emotional learning curriculum that takes place in the classroom and on the pitch.

“That’s very much tied to young people’s passions, we’ll find out what’s the child into. For example, we have a scheme where the work is about bars, where we know that some people are really into music, rap, and we kind of look at how they can understand themselves better and emotions through being able to write their own poetry, music, but also the hook is the rappers that they like or the musicians that they like. So, you’re not disguising the learning, but you’re hooking them with passions that are really relevant to them.”

Secondly, there’s the work embedded in schools. Through liaising with the schools through an application system, monitoring at-risk youth by adding specific targets, like behaviour rewards, and motivating the kids to start achieving goals, one step at a time.

“We also really work with and in schools, and we’ll set behaviour points targets, we’ll do classroom observations, we’re kind of seen as an extension to the school’s pastoral team. With that, for young people who meet their behaviour targets, we take them on amazing rewards, like incredible reward trips, which can be quite life-changing.”

Thirdly, you’ve got therapeutic support. Ceylon is keen to stress that this is therapy, as per the word’s definition, but in a whole different way that makes it more accessible and relatable to those in Football Beyond Borders’ programme.

“It’s obviously delivered by qualified counsellors, but they are culturally competent. They are people who have come from the same communities as our young people and are kind of changing the face of therapy as well. Therapy is often traditionally done by white middle class, middle-aged women.

“So, we are building a team of younger people, people of colour, people from the same schools, who were training in their therapeutic qualifications with partner organisations. And they’re doing that one to one relational work, which is, for the most part, at-risk young people who have experienced the most trauma or adverse childhood experiences, they’re the ones that get that additional hour of support each week.”

In 2018, the team at Football Beyond Borders saw the rise of women’s sports and realised its impact socially and culturally. So, Ceylon and her team tailored a brand new programme that could make the best and most positive impact on girls.

“I came in, and it was like, ‘right go on work with girls, but here’s the same curriculum’, and I was like, ‘this is not going to work, Fifa Ultimate Team cards, similar sessions, this is not going to work, they’re not going to rate it’. So, back in 2018/2019, we worked really closely with a group of 16-year-old girls who knew FBB [Football Beyond Borders] really well. They had been in girls’ and boys’ programmes. They would work with me every week in the classroom afterwards, and we would listen to the girls and understand what they wanted to do.

"And an example of that is the film Rocks. It's on Netflix at the moment. We identified that as teenage girls' experiences never get portrayed on screens, and here is a film about a teenage girl's lived experience in a city. We took that film, we showed it to the girls and then we designed a whole scheme of work around it, kind of like responsible decision making and getting girls to reflect on decisions that are made in the film, and then how that affects their own lives and decisions they've made and that sort of thing."

One standout difference is how boys and girls communicate. In the boys’ curriculum, they tend to try and understand why a boy is angry and give them the emotional and mental tools to deal with their anger (“like mindfulness techniques to get into the state where you need to be to take the perfect penalty . . . what can you do in the classroom to sort of be regulate, de-escalate your emotions, and manage to stay in that classroom for the next hour?”), girls are encouraged to let their anger out.

“We need to be teaching them that it’s okay to be angry and not to suppress their anger. Because we know that from all the research that suppressing your anger just leads to mental health conditions: depression, anxiety will play out in more unhealthy ways.”

In short, Football Beyond Borders believes no young person or child should be left behind and that everyone should have a responsible and caring adult in their lives.

“It’s really important that the person knows that there’s an FBB triangle and the points which are FBB, school and home, that the young person is in the middle and we’re all working together. That’s why long term and intensive support is needed. It’s not like a six-week bag of balls and cones intervention, boom. It’s we’re coming in here, we’re going to be in your lives for at least four years, and your family’s lives, and we’re going to be there to support and almost do whatever it takes to support that young person to stay in school and to thrive.”

While young kids are being used as political footballs in the Republic, charities like Football Beyond Borders are similar in the Republic, lost in the middle. With their work being so relied on, it’s critical not to forget during these conversations about who gets what, we don’t forget that behind these statements are actual children, families and other groups whose lives have been disrupted. We must not fail them.

So, as Ceylon flips her camera to show me the happy children running amok and having fun, it dawns on me that the sacrifices made by these young people, to their loss, must not be forgotten when leaders need their votes in a few years.