Mak­ing his­tory

TES (Times Education Supplement) - - CONTENTS -

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

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