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When fewer of St Mary Cray Primary Academy’s families were able to get the help they needed, the school stepped in and found a unique solution
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The Oasis Community Hub opened its doors to families in Bromley earlier this year, offering free support to children and parents otherwise unable to access centralised services. Activities are provided for children aged from birth to five, alongside programmes for parents and advisory services for adults.
Under the wing of St Mary Cray Primary Academy, the centre was opened within the walls of an under-used youth centre next door to the school. Within weeks of opening, 44 families – 23 outside of the school community – had already started making use of the advice, guidance and support on offer on their doorstep.
“Bromley is a very affluent area,” says St Mary Cray headteacher Adam Lowing.
“But, within that, there are areas which do not fit that mould, including where my school is based. There used to be lots of family centres dotted around, but they have now been centralised and our families would need to take a 25-minute walk or get the bus to access them. We have many families who would really benefit from accessing these services, but the distance proved a barrier. We became acutely aware our families were no longer accessing these services.”
St Mary Cray has itself been on a journey of transformation in recent years and the reduction in this external support for its families was seen as a hindrance to that development.
“We have grown a lot as a school and that has been based on having high standards on the academic side, but also nurturing the whole school and our community,” says Adam. “As we continue to raise expectations, we must support local families and that is why we turned our thoughts to how we could provide those services ourselves.”
The youth centre next door to St Mary Cray was only being used for a couple of hours each week and remained empty the rest of the time, so was an ideal base for the community hub. While finding appropriate space was half the battle, the next mission was to establish how a new service could be funded.
“There was no way we could fund it from our school budget, no matter how much we wanted to,” says Adam. “We got funding from Children in Need, the National Lottery and a whole host of other organisations which gave us the revenue we needed to create the centre. As the money became a reality, so did the possibility of this happening.”
From the seed of an idea to opening the doors of the Oasis Community Hub was about two years, with much discussion with the local council and partners who would offer services from the base.
Local councillor Jo Johnson, MP for Orpington, has given full support to the centre, with partners including the local church, businesses, housing associations, residents’ groups and adult education providers.
In the relatively socially deprived community, families are in need of support in the early years, plus assessment and intervention from multiple agencies.
Adam admits that his school was not as strong as it could have been on this side – it was graded Requires Improvement by Ofsted with results in the bottom 200 nationwide when the head arrived three years ago – and the centre enabled it to offer further support to families.
He said: “Children here had significant complex special needs with very challenging behaviour which were not being met or dealt with for a long time. But what was always strong about the school was the pastoral side.
“There are really good people here doing really good jobs in school and there is a sense of community I had never experienced before. It’s a very open, honest and friendly community and the parents and families want a relationship with the school.
“In those three years, we have come a long way and now self-evaluate as ‘outstanding’. For children, the centre is an opportunity to develop with their peers and professionals or to join in with activities, while parents can access practical life skills classes, advice on housing benefits or simply talk to someone.
“Rather than signposting families to this support, we are now able to offer it ourselves. Ultimately, the hub is my responsibility as it is part of my school.”
While there was a large take-up when the hub opened, the biggest challenge now is to let more and more people know the services exist in their neighbourhood. An important measure of success will be the numbers of people going through the doors, but Adam is also keen to see the impact the extra support has on children.
“It is not a nursery or trying to compete with nurseries, but we can use early years profiling to see how children are developing. We can also look at examples of where we have made an impact on someone or helped someone to access other agencies.
“The hub is almost like an extension of the school, as they are literally separated by a gate. We are trying to connect the two together as much as possible, in terms of thinking about what we can do within the hub space to involve the school community.
“We have an attendance mascot and have told the children he lives in the hub, so we now have attendance parties in the hub which helps to raise its profile.”
While numbers are important, it’s the individual success stories which will be the true measure of the Oasis Community Hub. Within the first week, a mum with several children attended her very first mum and toddler group at the venue, having always stayed away from such groups due to anxiety.
“Because the hub is run within the familiar surroundings of the school and by people she knows, she was able to come along and said she really enjoyed it.
“We have also been having tea and toast meets there each day to encourage the parents who usually hang around our cramped school entrance after morning drop-off to come in and spend some time together.
“At the end of term, they decided they wanted to cook breakfast together; that isn’t something we had planned for, but the hub is seeing fabulous relationships built between the school and the community.
“Some of our families have not had great experiences at school themselves so it is lovely for them to have a positive relationship with us. The hub is better than expected and the benefits are greater than expected.”
That community spirit saw 35 volunteers help clean and paint the centre ahead of its opening, with plans to fundraise to keep the coffers topped up in the future. It is hoped if a revenue can be created from the hub, the services provided can be diversified and opening times extended.
“The ultimate goal would be to have a multi-agency hub with other agencies and professionals based within it,” says Adam. “There is so much potential to take it further. It’s really exciting.”
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