You often hear that schools are at the heart of a community but what does that mean? I spent an hour with a team who work across two schools in Cwmbran and heard how their relationship with parents and local residents has changed over the last couple of years.
It was the difference they have made to the community outside the classroom that caught my interest. After a few emails with Ceri Johnson, Associate Headteacher, I found myself walking through what was once my old school (Fairwater Infants) and into an empty classroom.
A £10,000 cheque from the National Lottery Community Fund is going to turn this space into a Community and Family Resource Base. What it will contain will be up to the people who will use it. Ideas include coffee mornings, parent & baby support, education, cookery lessons, ICT support as well as a food bank.
Mrs Johnson came over to Blenheim Road from Coed Eva as Associate Headteacher (alongside Mrs Rosser) four years ago.
“The hub of the community”
She said: “I had my ‘community head’ on and wanted to drive forward with the Federation’s vision of becoming a hub of the community. With our Family Support Team we wanted to support the wellbeing of our families and our community, but to do that you have to build trust. You can’t just say ‘we are here’. Achieving this has been a huge silver lining of the pandemic we are currently facing.
“The Family Support Team is made up of the following staff from across both sites: Ceri Johnson (Community and Family Support Officer- Blenheim), Sara Roberts (Community and Family Support Officer- Coed Eva), Charlotte Pimm (Emotional & Wellbeing Officer), Sarah Coombes (Pastoral Support Officer), Amber Jones (Teaching Assistant), Stacey Harris (Class Teacher/Senior leader), Vickie Perkins (Additional Learning Needs Coordinator) and Holly Gallan (Additional Learning Needs Coordinator).
“The team launched their first ‘Kindness in the Community’ project in November 2020. Year 6 at Blenheim Road carried out a litter pick in the park by Ton Road and pupils wrote letters to care homes, spread kindness in their classes and their families and wrote thank you cards to Panteg House and CoStar.
“Biscuits for local nans”
“The Family Support Team also surprised local residents with packets of biscuits, finding some ‘nanna’s’ who had not spoken to anyone for months.
“These local residents are being kept in mind for future coffee mornings at the Community and Family Resource Base.
“We work closely with Panteg House and CoStar who help us to supply food for some of our families. Our families trust us and we have become an extended family. They text us if they need any support from us, including food. We want our hub to be a place where they can get advice on anything and everything. From ICT access and support for online forms etc. to learning how we teach children to read using our phonics scheme.
“A lot of families have been able to reach out for help, some were struggling to get out for food. You know people are struggling, but when it’s families from our school community, it can be an eye-opener.”
Lockdown and moving lessons online gave teachers a chance to build closer relationships with parents who had no idea how the school could help. Torfaen Council asked schools for devices across the Federation and they gave out a number laptops for home learning.
“We also ask the children how they’re feeling”
Vickie Perkins, Additional Learning Needs Coordinator (ALNCo) at Blenheim said “Online learning is difficult for younger pupils so we make the lessons fun and we always ask the children how they are and how they are feeling.”
The Family Support Team at Blenheim have also set up a direct line of contact- a mobile phone that staff take turns to look after. She said: “It has been a godsend. We wondered how we were going to get to our parents. They are here for drop-off and pick-ups so we make sure we are out there to talk to them, face to face. It’s now normal for them to see us out of school and on their doorstep.”
The work at Blenheim Road is following a model started at Coed Eva school. As part of my visit we then went to Coed Eva and met Sara Roberts (Community and Family Engagement Officer), Sarah Coombes (Pastoral Support Officer) and Amber Jones (Teaching Assistant).
We sat down for a socially-distanced coffee and chat in a room that has been designed to make visitors relax. Comfy sofas, a calming colour scheme and the friendly faces of the team all add up to a welcoming space. It’s also the base for the Federation Food Bank that has been supporting local residents.
“We have built relationships based on trust”
Mrs Roberts said: “I got a research grant to go to New York and study family engagement at schools for a week. Some of these schools were in high-crime areas. The community element of the outstanding schools included services like health, adult learning, food and financial support all in a hub.
“They had everything on one site so it was easy for parents. That’s the same vision for here. It’s not just space, it’s the centre of the community. We give out food parcels to the community but it’s not just about food, we are here for them.
“We have built relationships based on trust. We are lucky to have built this team over the last year and have the support of our leadership team. The families realise we are more than a building for 9am to 3pm. When they reach out they see the support we offer and that affects their lives. The feedback has been lovely. They love it.”
The food parcel service ran throughout the holidays last year and will continue this year. The community rooms at both schools are going to have a door fitted so visitors can be allowed in without having access to the rest of the school.
Thanks to the team for sharing their work and showing how schools are more than buildings and really are the heart of their community.
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