This blog originally appeared in the Western Mail on 17th February 2021.

Cut off from school, friends and activities, young people across the country have been hit by the Covid pandemic. Here, Gavin Hawkey, Director of Cardiff City FC Foundation, explains how we have been supporting young people across South Wales at this challenging time.

Social inequality is one of the most significant issues facing Wales today. Even before coronavirus, almost a quarter of people in Wales were in poverty, living precarious and insecure lives. The risk for children was higher, with 3 in 10 children living in poverty. 

Meanwhile, parts of North Wales and the South Wales valleys continue to languish near the bottom of the UK's GDP league table, while our economic output accounts for only 3.4% of the UK's total GDP.

Things aren't set to get better any time soon, thanks to the "triple whammy" impact of Brexit, the end of the furlough scheme and the economic contraction caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

We know that one of the biggest reasons Wales underperforms economically and is home to so many people living in poverty is unemployment and low pay.

We also know that disadvantaged young people are twice as likely to not be in education, employment or training. Furthermore, the attainment gap between young people from the poorest communities and their more affluent peers remains a major challenge.

At GCSE, a third fewer pupils who receive free school meals get five A-C passes compared to pupils overall. It's a vicious circle because a young person without good GCSE results is less likely to go into further or higher education and get a good job. The effects of this can last a lifetime, widening already deeply entrenched inequalities.

These inequalities show up in health outcomes as well as education and employment. In addition to being a blight on individual lives, families and communities, inequality results in many 'hidden' costs to the public purse. 

The picture was bleak enough before COVID-19 came along. New research shows that, because of the pandemic, young people growing up in the poorest communities have half the chance of getting good grades at school. The stark reality is that the odds have become much tougher for thousands of young people across Wales. And it's a cycle we need to break if we are to prevent the inequality gap from becoming an insurmountable chasm.

As we look ahead to a post-vaccine future, there are many reasons to ensure young people don't get left even further behind. If we want the economy to recover, we need to invest in our young people. That's our only hope of producing a skilled future workforce equipped to navigate the changing world of work. It's also our only chance of giving young people a future to look forward to and tackle the mental and physical health challenges linked to poverty and deprivation. It's also about the public purse; in England and Wales, we spend nearly £17 billion a year dealing with problems that start in childhood.

Whichever way you look at it, unless we take action now to prevent widening educational inequality, we are storing up a raft of problems for the future. 

At Cardiff City FC Foundation, we want a future where children and young people can achieve their full potential. We use the power of football to tackle the impact of inequality by creating opportunities for young people to lead healthier, more active lives, providing life-changing education opportunities and building safer communities.

We know the barriers the young people we work with face during their day-to-day lives and are all too aware of the additional risks and challenges they face due to the pandemic. These risks include digital exclusion, social isolation and domestic violence. We also know that the young people we work with are creative, talented and have hopes and dreams for the future. 

As a charity working with tens of thousands of young people across South Wales, many of them living in deprivation, we have worked hard to support young people, teachers and schools during this difficult time.

We recently held our Bluebirds from Home learning festival, a week-long virtual festival supporting children's wellbeing and learning through daily fitness activities and football-themed English and Maths lessons.

Over 140 schools took part, and thousands of young people enjoyed the opportunity to learn differently. By harnessing the power of football, we have found new ways to keep young people engaged and interested in learning, while supporting education professionals who are working incredibly hard to deliver teaching online.

We know that our approach has provided those young people at risk of becoming disengaged with new reasons to stay motivated and keep learning.

Alongside our work with schools, we have had to adapt to new ways of reaching out to our own students and keeping them connected to vital social networks.

Our Future Pathways post 16-education programme combines educational studies with sport and supports young people into education, employment and training. We offer a Traineeship, BTEC at Levels 1, 2 and 3 and a Foundation Degree. For now, all of our students are learning from home, and we have had to rethink how we keep them interested and challenged while providing them with pastoral support. 

16-year-old Amy's *(not her real name) story shows how important this work has been. A first-year BTEC Level 3 in Sport student, she struggled when she came to us after negative experiences in secondary school. Diagnosed with depression, living in a single-parent home where her mother works full time, she told us that support from her tutor had made all the difference:

"My tutor is brilliant. She knows how tough it is learning online, as she knows me well and knows what I am dealing with. She calls me weekly for wellbeing check-ins, and I know I can call her anytime I need to talk. It's great to have that level of support and a listening ear. It's really helped keep me focused on my course work, even though learning online can be isolating at times." 

As Amy's experiences show, we have learned an enormous amount during the pandemic about how we keep young people engaged with education. We work in partnership with schools, youth groups, and other charities and are keen to share resources with other organisations who would like to work with us or learn from our experiences. 

In a fast-moving situation, we have kept an acute focus on not letting our students fall behind through factors over which they have no control, whether that's their home environment, declining mental health or other pressures. If we are to build a healthier, wealthier, fairer and more resilient Wales, we need to ensure that no young person gets left behind in the slipstream of the pandemic.

Organisations interested in finding out more about working with us can get in touch via [email protected].