Sports cages are hugely significant to many young people, but are too often overlooked as important community spaces and important pieces of social infrastructure. They are spaces where young people spend time together, develop friendships, and engage in a range of sports and activities. They can be one of the few places in the neighbourhood that young people feel a rich sense of ownership over.
In some neighbourhoods, particularly in under-resourced areas, sports cages may be some of the few freely accessible, local recreational spaces available to young people. As one young person quoted in the reported shared:
"Back in my old days, I used to be a part of this free provision where all the younger people in the community would come together, and we would be trained by older youth in the area on the cage. That was really good, it allowed us to keep fit, and to do something we loved – football. (…) After a while, it stopped running, and the area was a bit dead. (…) Once it stopped running, everybody started going back to their old ways. There was nothing much to do. I won't lie, I kind of got up to a little trouble myself.”
From a Contextual Safeguarding perspective, sports cages are important locations to consider because they have the potential to be both significant places of safety and concerning places of harm for young people:
- They can be spaces where young people develop positive peer relationships with one another. As they are one of the few informal locations in a neighbourhood in which intergenerational mixing is common, this can lead to positive role modelling. Cages are also usually highly visible and thus have the possibility to have local community guardianship over them. They can also be places of economic opportunity for young people, e.g. through paid sports coaching.
-Sports cages can also be places in which young people who may be considered ‘harder to reach’ by services can be more effectively engaged, through detached youth work for instance. The second half of the report shares examples of good practice from youth services and organisations involved in detached youth work and other forms of youth provision in sports cages.
-However, sports cages are not always positive spaces. They can attract older young people or adults looking for vulnerable young people who may be susceptible to grooming, or could be sites of peer-on-peer abuse. They can become the 'territory' of certain groups, which in some cases may involve criminal exploitation. As such, in some cases and some places, young people spending time in a cage may be at risk of entering abusive or exploitative relationships.
The report proposes a framework for assessing the safeguarding risk and protective factors for sports cages through the lens of Contextual Safeguarding. This would include:
-considerations about physical and environmental aspects of the cage;
- its usage, including activities happening in the cage;
- the dynamics of peer interactions
- any data from services about the cage
- any potential for local guardianship;
- factors related to the wider neighbourhood context, such as nearby facilities and organisations and opportunities available to young people in the area;
- and reports of safeguarding concerns or crime.
Key stakeholders involved in such an assessment could include: responsible agencies; services and organisations; young people; residents; parents and local businesses. Some of these elements are specific to cages, but many are common to any location - the Contextual Safeguarding neighbourhood assessment provides a helpful template for thinking further about assessing public locations more generally.
The report also includes some suggested guidance for action-planning to make a cage safer, including some suggested guidance on thresholds for statutory involvement in this. Potential actions for making cages suggested in the report include: training and paying local young people to audit the safety of the cage; mapping local organisations and facilities in the neighbourhood; making physical changes; supporting local community guardians; organising formal and informal activities in the cage; and bringing local residents together in a community event.
While sports cages should come under the scrutiny of child protection systems if there are linked to safeguarding concerns for young people, the report stresses the importance of ensuring local community ownership by young people and residents, in line with key Contextual Safeguarding principles. In this vein, the report considers ways in which local residents and young people can be involved in improving their local sports cages and making them safer spaces.
Image of cage lifted from 'Sport Cages: Places of safety, places of harm, places of potential, Billingham 2020'.