An Even Better Arbourthorne

Led by Michael Norton

The idea emerged from a conversation in April 2018 with an individual who had collected a wide range of items to be shipped up to Sheffield and donated to parents at a school whose catchment area was one of the poorest communities in the UK. Instead of donation to people in need, could we find a way of addressing the problem of poverty by providing skills, confidence and opportunities to local people as well as self-help ways of meeting urgent needs?

Following a number of discussions, CIVA entered into a collaboration agreement with the school and assembled a project team hosted by Grow Theatre, a Sheffield-based theatre-in-education organisation with a track record of community engagement to coordinate the project. This was formally launched in November 2018 with a visit to Hartlepool Action Lab and a launch party at the school. The project was initially funded with donations from a group of supporters and an awards fund to support projects created by parents, pupils, teachers and community members provided for us by Ascot Lloyd, a financial services fiorm with a presence in Sheffield. Later we were able to obtain 3-year grants from the Reaching Communities programme of the National Lottery Community Fund and from the Tudor Trust. We also appointed the Urban Institute of the University of Sheffield as our learning partner, also with the intention of mobilising additional resources from the University and tis students and to find ways engaging further with the university which has a commitment to use the local community as a base for learning and research.

These are some of the initiatives that we have developed, including through the pandemic when the school has been closed for much of the time and face-to-face interactions have not been possible:

Volunteering: We have sought to encourage volunteering amongst parents and in the local community. And in 2020 just before the pandemic broke and we had the first lockdown, we appointed a parent as our Volunteer Coordinator. We have around 25 committed volunteers many of whom have played a key role in food distribution during the pandemic, and when it becomes possible we would like to double this number. We are also developing ways of rewarding our volunteers as an encouragement and for recognition.

Food: Food poverty and poor nutrition are key issues. At the start we developed a community fridge at the school as a way of collecting surplus food for free distribution to those in need through a membership scheme. We developed access to surplus food by creating direct relationships with supermarkets and shops, and through FareShare and other schemes. Parent volunteers with the support of the school organised a Fortnightly Family Feast cooking surplus food in the kitchen, although this had to be suspended during lockdown. A group of parents developed a slow cooker initiative to encourage cooking by lending out low-energy cookers and creating a slow cooker cookbook. During the pandemic our volunteers played a key role in addressing food poverty.

Growing: We have developed a number of initiatives in the school grounds. Planting fruit trees with the support of the Tree Council, a GrowIt initiative followed by the acquisition of a large polytunnel for families to plant and grow food and to supply the school kitchen.

Savings: A group of women set up a savings group after a visit to the Women Savers group in Wythenhshawe (Manchester) which had been developed and supported by the University of Sheffield. In 2022, a second savings group is likely to be established. We also have another initiative to encourage saving energy.

Trendy Treasures: A parent created a clothes swap shop in a room provided by the school. This has been closed during lockdown and the parent has since moved out of the areas.

Action Stations Awards: These are a key aspect of our programme, where we offer awards of up to £500 to parents, pupils, school staff and community members to create their own projects. These have included rescuing a pond for fishing, creating a garden in the school grounds, and the slow cooker library.

Maker School: With the University of Sheffield and support from the Garfield Weston Foundation we have provided the school with maker equipment (such as 3-D printers and cutters) and are developing a curriculum which covers several aspects of making. Digital making and coding activity is being developed with Erase All Kittens, a thriving start-up business which specialises in developing coding skills for young people and especially for girls.

Education: During the pandemic, parents played a much more important role in the education of their children, which working with the school we encouraged and supported. The school also ensured using its own resources that families had access to the internet.

Book group: We helped start an active book and reading group amongst parents.

Communication: A regular newsletter is circulated and social media used to communicate with parents and for sharing.

We work very closely with the school, which is also committed to the aims of An Even Better Arbourthorne and which has provided considerable resources of its own as well as staff time and facilities for the programme. In 2020, the project team was offered a room in the school as a base, and regular meetings are held between the project team and the school’s senior management team. There is a steering group comprising school staff, parents and the project team which guides the development of the An Even Better Arbourthorne project.

The idea of a Hub School: Right from the start of the project, we envisaged a primary school as a hub for community engagement and development. It is the one local institution in every community which is well funded, has facilities available for community use beyond the school day and term, has maybe 250 parents turning up twice a day to drop off and collect their children, and where community engagement can lead to better educational outcomes. The importance of this idea was emphasised during Covid-19. And this is now an idea which we want to develop further, building on experience of working in Sheffield. We have taken these steps:

  1. Set out the idea in a costed plan of action which will move us forward after our current funding ends.
  2. Engaged with the Urban Institute of the University of Sheffield, who are exploring ways of getting research funding and to work with us.
  3. Started to engage with other schools who share our ideas and approach, and also with Big Education. We plan to bring a small group of schools and educationalists together in 2022 to discuss the idea and to try to create a way of moving it forward collaboratively, combining our different approaches and different experiences.

To develop these ideas will require further funding. But from our experience so far, this additional cost is very small when compared with the educational and social benefits that are created. This could be one area to explore for “building back better” after the pandemic. We are discussing this with our current funders as a way of moving forward once our current grants end (at the end of June 2022).