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Tower Hamlets Summer University - The urgent need for summer activities for young people

Published Date: 24 October 2008

A local summer university for youngsters has been a great success. But plans to expand have fared less well. How do community schemes grow successfully?

In the summer of 1994, when I returned home to Bethnal Green in the East End of London at the end of my first year at university, there was huge concern - then as now - about young people, gangs and drugs. I volunteered with the Institute of Community Studies - the social research and enterprise organisation set up by the late Michael Young - and was put to work on a project involving young people, interviewing teenagers on street corners and in youth centres, talking to teachers, youth workers and parents, and writing a report on our impressions and ideas about what should be done to help young people.

One striking theme to come out of my research was that many of the teenagers we encountered were, after initial reticence, willing to talk to me because I was of a similar age to them. It became clear that most of them were bored and had little to do over the summer breaks, and their parents often couldn't afford to take them on holiday or even on day trips. Many complained that they were being stopped and searched by the police when they gathered in groups - which were automatically, in their view, considered to be gangs by adults and people in authority.


Many of the teenagers were angry at being labelled in this way. Others felt they needed to stick together for safety from the real gangs, who were often territorial about their local estates. In short, what young people wanted was not more youth clubs or top-down organised events, but festivals and activities such as film-making, football and maths, activities with clear learning outcomes and no barriers to attending. We reported back at the end of the summer, and I recall that my pessimistic account included a warning that if action was not taken and there were not more activities for young people, things would only get worse.

The research appeared to confirm some of Young's hunches: he had noticed that when Tower Hamlets' schools broke up for summer, there would be a week of normality before youth crime rates soared - pointing, he believed, to a need for reactive educational opportunities to help break the cycle of boredom for young people. He went on to use our research and insights to establish Tower Hamlets Summer University (THSU) in 1995, following an initial pilot with the local council's education and business partnership. The charity now provides young people with innovative educational opportunities all year round, but especially during the summer holidays. The organisation works to promote independent learning, raise achievement, promote tolerance and good community relations, increase access to educational opportunity and involve young people in the organisation's development.

Over the last decade, THSU has expanded and improved, inspiring other London boroughs and other areas of Britain to emulate its model. A major programme of activities is running for young people aged 11 to 25, providing more than 100 different courses in subjects as diverse as the maritime industry, stocks and shares trading, international cookery, as well as sports, music, performing and visual arts, new media, business and industry, healthy living, IT and fashion. In addition, it has a highly successful and motivating peer volunteer programme and young ambassadors' advisory group, which contribute to the running of the programme. One of its most striking successes has been in reducing youth crime. Metropolitan police statistics from 2003 showed that since 1995, THSU had contributed to reducing juvenile nuisance by 17%, drug offences by 25%, and an overall reduction in youth crime in the borough by 8% over the summer holiday period - even though Tower Hamlets has the fastest growing teenage population in Britain. It has won a clutch of awards for its work. But these successes were also accompanied by many setbacks, and the lessons we learned from these are a useful guide for any ambitious youth project.

It is always hard to grow an organisation - THSU's first attempt to go national didn't work. Although THSU was doing exceptional work, it did not have the capacity, resources and profile to expand so far and so quickly. THSU learned that it is far better to scale up to a regional level, rather than attempt to go national in one step. The key to the success has been finding champions in local and national government and charitable foundations, backed by a dynamic and entrepreneurial director and a diverse board of trustees, including from the private sector. But as in other charities, success in getting new support brings new challenges in its wake. Often you have to change the internal culture and capacities as larger scale funding comes understandably with greater levels of accountability. Summer universities on their own clearly do not provide the whole answer to tackling youth crime and boredom among young people, but it is incredible just how many places in Britain still lack creative activity of this kind, designed to tap into the energies and enthusiasms of young people. THSU provided a practical answer to a very visible problem of the kind we now desperately need to tackle in many of Britain's cities. But if it wasn't for perseverance, hard work and some good luck, THSU might not have flourished.

Developing potential

Across the country, there are ideas and projects that, with the right help and support, can contribute to developing and focusing the potential of young people. The government has made a total of £220m available for youth activities, much of it for small-scale local projects, with young people themselves deciding which projects to fund. This has opened up potential for new and innovative youth activity at a local level, but there is not as yet an effective enough mechanism to scale successful projects up to a regional or national level. The government's Empowerment Fund for communities and the proposed national institute for youth leadership provide an opportunity to fill this void. By focusing them on identifying and supporting the new approaches that are needed, we can make sure that it isn't by accident, but rather by design that the Tower Hamlets universities of the future don't fall through the gap.

Rushanara Ali is associate director of the Young Foundation and is chair of Tower Hamlets Summer University.

Article published on the Guardian on september 2008