Giving teens a fighting chance

School can feel like a box, built on foundations of rules, schedules and conforming.

Not all children fit inside that box and the traditional education system doesn’t work for them. They’re labelled naughty, disruptive or unteachable. But they can be taught if you give them a fighting chance.

A former boxer and his wife run a Mexborough-based charity that provides alternative education for pupils who are disengaged from school. John and Jackie Irwin started Dearne Valley Personal Development Centre 12 years ago and have helped hundreds of young people since then.

Denaby born John was a boxer in the 1980s and ‘90s who fought under the name Jon Jo Irwin. He represented his country 25 times, becoming ABA featherweight champion and winning gold at the 1990 Commonwealth Games in New Zealand.

When his sporting career ended, he became a joiner but knew he wanted to improve the lives of young people from his hometown. His wife Jackie was an art teacher, so together they came up with the idea of Dearne Valley PDC.

Theirs is a totally different experience from mainstream school. John and Jackie have built a programme that they can adapt around each young person’s individual needs. The team deliver sessions in boxing, fitness, art and cooking, as well as off-site activities like walking or sport. Learners create a portfolio of work and can achieve level 1 and 2 vocational qualifications. But the main ethos behind Dearne Valley PDC is to improve the confidence and self-esteem of their young people.

“Kids become disengaged from school for various reasons. There might be issues with their family or home life, they’ve experienced trauma, they have undiagnosed special educational needs, or they just don’t fit into that conventional environment.
“If they leave here with a smile on their face then it’s job well done for us. But it’s also about balance; I am a teacher so I do expect them to put the work in to achieve at least one qualification,” Jackie says.

The team works with young people aged 14-16 from the Dearne Valley area and have built strong links with secondary schools who refer pupils to them. They welcome ten students a day which allows the four staff members to have one-to-one time with each teenager. Some attend on a short-term basis, while others stay for two years.

But the door never closes. Jackie tells us a story about a young girl who recently left Dearne Valley PDC who made a real improvement in her time there.

“She had nobody in her life who cared about her and struggled socially, but she was very switched on and had a lot of potential. She wrote us a letter thanking the team for being the family she never had.

“You don’t realise the impact you have until parents or teachers tell you how much that child has changed. We can’t help every child who comes to us turn their lives around. But it has a ripple effect, you hope that in years to come they look back and be thankful they came here.”

The pandemic has affected schools in a big way as they struggle to get students back into learning. John and Jackie have seen a rise in referrals, but it’s getting harder to access funding.

Thankfully, they are supported by Jason Mace who owns the Empress Building where the charity is based. All profits from the many events hosted at the Empress are donated to Dearne Valley PDC. They are also supported by Food Aware CIC who provide surplus food for the students to cook healthy meals with each day.

Find more about the charity here