Starting next month, coaches will spend at least one hour of quality time a week with a student of foreign origin in Antwerp. “The coaches should take the role of older friends who understand what it’s like to be young and that growing up while also having to concentrate on school is not always easy,” says Leen Verbist, Antwerp’s alderwoman of social services and diversity. “The goal is to make pupils stronger and teach them how to make their own choices about their future.”
Antwerp’s schools will offer students the chance to participate; students decide for themselves if they want to be part of the programme. Coaches are then matched to students principally according to common interests – for example, a love of football. “During the time together, the coach is there to listen to what worries them, to pat them on the back and congratulate them. In that way, they build pupils’ self-esteem,” explains Verbist.
As preparation, the coaches are given training in youth support. The inspiration for the project comes from the Dutch city of Den Haag. For 10 years, the city’s Centre 16-22 has trained coaches who each support a pupil of foreign origin. “With great success,” emphasises Verbist. “Their personal commitment increases, and their school results improve considerably. We hope to similarly boost the motivation of our pupils.”
The project is a valuable initiative, according to Rina Rabau, who leads Antwerp’s office of the Minderhedenforum (Minority Forum) – the Flemish umbrella organisation for ethnic minorities. “Around half of all pupils with a foreign background in Flemish education don’t finish secondary education. This kind of buddy project could be helpful to all students irrespective of ethnic background,” she says.
Rabau is especially glad that the youngest pupils in secondary school are targeted: “It is during those puberty years that, to a large extent, your personality is formed. Some extra support during that often tough process would be more than welcome.” The great advantage, she says, is that students extend their network and get to know different views and opinions from those of their usual circle of family and friends.
The coaches should not necessarily have to share the same background as the pupils, says Rabau, as long as they understand the sensitivities of their culture. “However, some groups have indicated that they would appreciate coaches of the same origin because they would have knowledge of the specific behavioural codes, the family situations and cultural background.” She would like to see the families involved, too, to make the link stronger.
Looking forward to the start, Rabau hopes the educational side of the project is not neglected. “After creating a strong relationship, the coaches should give advice on school assignments and study methods as well as on personal issues,” she says. “The activities should also be educational, indirectly. That does not mean they will be boring – going to the zoo, for example, also broadens and nurtures the minds of young people.”