Croydon’s newest youth centre opened by Stormzy has been called an ‘oasis’ for youth.

Community leaders insist that the borough needs ‘alternative safe spaces’ to prevent school non-attendance and knife crime.

This comes as one headteacher revealed that around 10 per cent of his students are currently not attending school.

The Selhurst-based #Merky FC youth centre was opened by Thornton Heath-born rapper last week to much acclaim from fans, community leaders, and politicians.

The facility, built in collaboration with Adidas and EA Sports, includes a 5G pitch, recording studio, gaming room, and several workshop rooms.

During last week’s launch, Stormzy said: “I’ve wanted to do this for a long, long time and now there’s a community space that everyone in the area will be able to use and benefit from.”

He added: “#Merky FC HQ is for you to play, create, and collaborate all under one roof, so sign up come down, and do your own thing, this space is yours. Croydon we are open.”

Facility manager, Maddy Orobator, said: “It’s a powerful thing and that’s why we had this meeting right away, I wanted to get the community together so they can put their ideas forward and drive it. It’s their space let them use it.”

Anthony King, of the MyEnds youth program, said: “This place appeared like an oasis last week. This is a space for you regardless of what school you are from."

A week on from its launch, Croydon’s leaders are now looking to how they can ensure the facility delivers on its promise of community cohesion.

In a meeting chaired by Mr King, several heads of businesses, charities, faith groups plus the Mayor of Croydon met to discuss how the facility can be used to tackle knife crime and school absence in the borough.

Michael Nelson, headteacher at nearby Beckmead College: “The biggest problem is the high percentage of children not attending school. They can use places like this and gradually reintegrate.”

Mr Nelson has been at Beckmead SEN College in South Norwood for the past 13 years and believes this new facility will provide his students with a safe alternative space away from the streets.

Being under a mile away from the facility, he believes students at Beckmead will see #Merky FC as a place where they can reintegrate before returning to school.

He described how students have many reasons for not attending school, including domestic violence at home and substance abuse.

He added that partnerships formed with facilities like #Merky FC allow schools to gradually bring students back to education through the power of sport and creativity.

This sentiment was shared by fellow headteacher Saqib Chaudhri, who felt Croydon’s youth needed more spaces like this facility, which offer security and support.

Mr Chaudhri, of Oasis Academy Shirley said: “It is an amazing facility because it can be used during the school day. It’s about having an alternative setting that is positive for our young people.”

This appetite for new community hubs comes in the context of persistent knife crime that has marred London’s most populated borough.

2023 was a particularly tough year for Croydon, which saw two teenagers lose their lives to knife crime.

According to Met Police data, while the number of people under 25 injured by knives has fallen, from 1,954 in 2016 to 1,435 last year, figures have been rising each year since 2020.

Unsurprisingly, prevention and community safety dominated the discussion at the meeting on May 7.

Musician and campaigner Raspec also shocked attendees by revealing that at present, British first aid training does not teach people what to do when someone has been stabbed.

Ben Eckett from the Croydon-based sports outreach charity BeInspired felt the facility could also be beneficial for ‘high-risk’ young people.

He said: “At the moment I’m not sure how we’re going to be involved, it’s all quite early doors at the moment. Our project isn’t based around football, it’s mainly boxing and ju-jitsu.

“However, we will refer our young people to come here though, because a lot of our young people live in this area.

"It will be quite accessible and I hope this could become a space where we deliver a lot of our interventions and group programs.”

Mr Eckett described how BeInspired, formerly Gloves Not Gunz, was set up to help steer young people away from violence.

Eckett said: “When we first set up Gloves Not Gunz, that was what it was all about. There had been a murder outside my friend’s gym and we felt like we needed to set something up for the community.”

While community leaders were optimistic about their hopes for the facility, concerns were raised around accessibility for the young people across the borough.

While they acknowledged the joint promotion of Stormzy and Croydon Council would mean many would be aware of the facility, they feared that barriers remained for young people outside of the Selhurst and South Norwood area.

Mr Chaudhri also stressed that security must be paramount at the new facility, considering the prevalence of school-to-school-based violence. He suggested improving the lighting around the facility to assuage fears of violence.

He also added that transport should be arranged to ensure that young people can access it safely from near and far.

He said: “There should be minibuses for people from New Addington for example. They [young people] need someone watching over them from A to B.”

Croydon’s executive mayor, Jason Perry, echoed the view that this facility will be a huge benefit to young people in the borough.

He said: “I was delighted to visit the new #Merky FC HQ in Selhurst this week and to see for myself the football and community facilities, and to hear about the fantastic opportunities that will be available to Croydon’s young people.

“Stormzy has never forgotten his roots and Croydon was delighted to honour him with a Freedom of the Borough award last year, recognising how much he gives back to his hometown. We look forward to working with #Merky FC and partners in improving the opportunities and outcomes for our young people in Croydon.”

Alongside youth volunteering opportunities, #Merky FC staff also said that employment opportunities would also be available at the facility.

Despite last week’s launch, the recording studio is not yet officially open to the public.