Cost of living crisis – Could your school serve as a ‘warm bank’?

semi-abstract imagery themed around electricity meters, budgeting and utility costs

Ahead of what promises to be tough winter for disadvantaged families, Rebecca Leek examines the practicalities of turning your school into a vital centre for local support

Rebecca Leek
by Rebecca Leek

Alongside the work I do in education, I’m a proud trustee for Suffolk Libraries. One need only observe the work they did during lockdown to appreciate just how much libraries have been quietly supporting communities in numerous ways, becoming beacons of light for those needing sustenance amid difficult times.

Now it seems that difficult times are ahead of us again. With household bills set to soar this winter, just as many of us anxiously turn our heating back on, it’s hard to know how much we’ll all be affected. A recent survey taken by the Trussell Trust in August this year found that many adults reported missing meals ‘to keep up with essential costs’ – and that was in summer. The worst is yet to come.

Honourable endeavour

Sadly, those in the most vulnerable circumstances will likely be affected most of all. Families on prepayment meters and those already in debt will face the terrifying prospect of ‘top-up’ money being needed to service debts before anything else. You may well be aware of the impact this will have on some of your school’s families. You might even be facing such a predicament yourself.

Right on cue, libraries are stepping up again. If you’ve yet to hear the term ‘warm banks’, trust me –you’ll soon be hearing it a lot. In the same way that food banks exist to give people access to essential foods for free, warm banks are conceived as freely accessible spaces where people can go to get warm.

It’s an honourable endeavour, but one that’s come in for some criticism. A cursory scroll through a few Twitter threads will soon reveal people pointing out that this development isn’t something to be celebrated – that it feels awkward to laud something many feel shouldn’t be necessary in the first place.

To be clear, I’m decidedly unhappy that so many are currently living in fear of their escalating bills. I’m no supporter of enforced austerity, nor do I believe Westminster is genuinely doing all it can.

I am, however, interested in developments that could result in overturning the status quo. At times like this, we can look to the permaculture principle of ‘turning problems into solutions’, and the notion that challenges can be tackled through creativity and looking at things from a different perspective – however regrettable those challenges may be.

Change your approach

There are numerous places of worship, social clubs, libraries and school halls that stand empty for many hours each week.

When one carries out a facilities or financial review in a school, the low occupancy rates of its spaces is something that often comes up. Governors will commonly query the possibility of letting these spaces out more often during revenue discussions. With finances continuing to be tight, it seems an opportune time to consider how we might change our approach with respect to making school spaces available for communal use.

If you share the view that warm banks and similar community responses represent creative solutions to our impending problems, then here are three ways in which you can get involved.

Signpost, normalise, encourage

Find out if there’s a ‘warm bank’ near you due to open soon or operating already. Does your route to work take you past any community-run projects? Are you aware of a religious community that’s providing support to local families? If so, share the relevant details.

Some may opine that those most in need of such spaces often won’t make use of them. Well, why not use them yourself? Libraries, for one, are fantastic. I’ve taken to sometimes basing myself in our town library on ‘working from home’ days, as the environment helps me stay focused and resist the urge to procrastinate.

If we can normalise the use of these brilliant places, then more people may feel empowered to cross the threshold. It’s mutually beneficial too, since the more people there are using libraries, the more likely it is that they’ll continue to attract funding.

Engage and help

Have you considered helping out as a volunteer? You’ll not only benefit personally from the warmth and hospitality (enabling you to leave your own heating off for an extra hour or two), but there’s evidence to suggest that you’ll get a warm feeling inside too.

A study published by the University of East Anglia in 2020 showed that the practice of volunteering is inextricably linked with enhanced wellbeing. Some large corporations like PricewaterhouseCoopers even incorporate volunteering days into their staff perks and wellbeing strategies.

Locate your local library or Church and ask if you can help. There may also be a way of incorporating some opportunities for your students too, be it work experience or enlisting their practical help on a project.

Do something at your school

Opening up parts of your school for community use is no mean feat. Who will man your now public-facing facilities? Who’ll assume oversight of your health and safety obligations?

With the right vision and sufficient will, however, these issues are surmountable. It’s simply a case of working through the necessary considerations before presenting your proposal to the school’s SLT or governors.

What areas in your school have the potential to be repurposed for community use? You may already have a cosy library on-site – perhaps even one situated close to a kitchenette.

Give careful thought to matters of access, timings, security and manpower. What kind of rota will you need? Can you get any other staff members on board? How good are your relations with the school’s site manager? Make sure they’re not being left out of the loop.

Reach out

Are there any local groups or connections who could get involved in what you’re doing? You may well find that a nearby Scouts group, local councillor or even allotment group will be pleased to be asked, with each grouping able to contribute their own sets of skills and ideas.

I’ve found that young people often enjoy cooking. Could you potentially create a community ‘soup kitchen’ that functions as a communal ‘bring and share’ service, while also teaching your students how to prepare meals for larger groups? That’s one life skill that’s definitely worth having….

While we’re on the topic, make sure you talk to your students. Let them have some ownership over what you’re planning. If they have younger siblings at a nearby primary, could you potentially establish an intergenerational reading club where younger children are read to by older children?

Finally, don’t forget safeguarding – a crucial area that should never be overlooked. Speak to your DSL and work through the relevant risk assessments carefully. Don’t see this process as a barrier to realising your ambitions, but rather an intrinsic part of your project planning.

The opportunities really are endless, though the most effective solutions will be different depending on the specific school and local community. Turning a spare room into a municipal living area or similar could help strengthen your links with the local community and go on to become something very special indeed.

The principles of permaculture 

Permaculture is an approach that originates from sustainable agriculture and growing methods. It’s a framework which seeks to identify self-sustaining solutions and systems that can potentially benefit all individuals, while working in harmony with the planet.

‘Turning problems into solutions’ is one of 12 fundamental permaculture principles, alongside others that include ‘using and valuing diversity’ and ‘producing no waste’.

Rebecca Leek (rebeccaleek_) has been a secondary and primary classroom teacher, head of department, SENCo and headteacher; she is currently the CEO of SEAMAT – a trust of three schools in South Essex

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