How one award-winning project is building stronger community links
Education has the power to forge stronger bonds with communities in disadvantaged areas – and there’s no better example than Manchester Communication Academy. Martin George visits the award-winning school to find out how an innovative local history project is pulling local residents together
IT WAS a community destroyed by the slum clearances of the 1950s and 1960s, but now one of the most deprived parts of the country is being knitted back together with the help of a local secondary school.
Josie Loftus was 16 when the demolition teams came to her community in Manchester. She says her school, St Patrick’s, was “definitely the heart of the community” before it was closed. “All that went with the slum clearance, and there was no heart to the community. I think this is the heart of the community now, definitely. It throbs from here.”
The “this” she is referring to is Manchester Communication Academy (MCA), and now, aged 73, she is a key part of the team that runs the Once Upon a Time local history project, which helped MCA win the community impact prize at this year’s Tes schools awards.
The school – a modern, airy building at a busy crossroads – opened in 2010, and is sponsored by BT. Principal Lynne Heath, for whom the accolade came just weeks before retirement, says the academy’s mission to serve its community is built into its design.
When the school was under construction, the building company used the highest level of security for any of its sites in the UK, which Heath says was owing to its perceptions of the area. But when the architects said the finished building would need fences and other protection, the school firmly said “no”.
“You cannot put a £32 million building in an area like this and shut the door or fence it off, because people won’t come,” Heath says.
“If the intention is to have the community use it, it has got to be as welcoming and open as possible, so that’s why we are right on the street. It’s also very symbolic because of where it’s situated. It sends a message out that this is a community that is being invested in.”
The history project, originally called Have Your Say and run from a church, was in danger of being disbanded because of financial difficulties. But before the school had even opened, it offered to become the project’s new home. The initiative originally involved recording people’s memories of the area, and resulted in a hardback book that was distributed to local primary school children.
It has since grown in scale, and now has more than 500 members, from as far afield as Spain, Canada, the US and Australia.
Breaking down barriers
Once Upon a Time produces three magazines a year and holds three annual “get-togethers” at the academy, where around 200 members gather for a meal and entertainment.
The academy also hosts weekly Monday drop-in sessions that regularly attract around 25 people.
But these bare statistics do not capture the full impact of Once Upon a Time: it appears to have changed attitudes – those of the young people, many of whom have no older living relatives because of low life expectancy in the area, and the older people.
Martin Roberts, vice-principal in the school’s social investment department,
‘You cannot put a £32m building in an area like this and shut the door or fence it off, because people won’t come’
explains that, in the past, pupils were selected to take part in the project because they had misbehaved in the local area.
“It’s helped them to think about their behaviour choices,” he says. “[The project] started off as us saying, ‘You have misbehaved in the community. We want you to give back to that community by helping us out at this event.’
“We know that the spin-offs of that are that once they start talking to older adults, they start to reflect, and rather than carrying on knocking on doors in evenings in the community and messing about with older people, they have actually had to think, ‘They are good people who contribute a lot to our community.’
The project, on the face of it, is about older people and social isolation and sharing memories, but introducing the children into it is really powerful.”
A challenging journey
It has also allowed some of the older people, who may have concerns about the changing make-up of their community, to talk to some of the new arrivals from different countries for the first time, and gain a “real understanding” of why they are here.
These reasons may amount to far more than a desire to take advantage of the benefits system, says Roberts.
“Some of the young people are on a really challenging journey to come here, and are arguably more enthused to learn and to succeed,” he adds. “The older people can really see they are here to contribute to our community, so I think it has had an impact that way.”
Once Upon a Time is just one example of how the school puts into practice its aim of giving children as good a chance as any to succeed in life.
Patsy Hodson, the vice-principal, who first invited the project to the school, says: “Our dream is that we close that gap to such a degree that kids wake up here in the morning with exactly the same opportunities as middle-class affluent kids in the rest of the country. That’s what we live and breathe for.”
It is an aim, she says, that is now starting to yield results, with good relations with the community being key to understanding the multiple factors that can affect many of its pupils.
The school also offers a range of accredited and unaccredited courses to adults, in subjects such as literacy, numeracy and cookery, which hundreds of local residents have enrolled on.
Heath describes a community that has grown tired of seeing money being thrown at shortterm initiatives over the years. In contrast, the school has “always said, ‘We are here to stay’”.
“We have got a 125-year lease, and whatever we are doing now, we will hopefully be doing it even better 20 years down the line. That, for me, has been the real success story – people growing with us.”
GENERATION GAME: A community ‘elder’ speaks with a student in the school’s 4D room to help bring Manchester’s history to life