‘See a need, fill a need’
One of my favourite of the animated films that I watched to death when my boys were much smaller was ‘Robots’; the main character in this film uses the phrase ‘See a need, fill a need’ and I wonder about whether there has been schools work which saw a need and worked to meet that need.
Broadly speaking there are two types of schools work: the first is to approach a school and offer an assembly and/or Christian Union or other lunchtime/after school activity which is usually based on teaching children and young people about Jesus. This might also mean RE lessons or ‘drop down days’ that some primary schools are using to fulfil the requirement to teach RE. The second type of schools work is approaching a school to ask what they need and then drawing up a programme based on what they say. Neither one of these types is better than the other, they just require different approaches, and, it must be said, often one type morphs into the other as the relationship with the school grows.
Identifying the need in your local school could be a challenge. There are several ways to do this but key to them all is a relationship with the school. Community profiling plays a part here, that is, getting to know your area or the area around the school: walk the streets; meet some of the key people which might include the local vicar, a PCSO, even the Neighbourhood Watch group could be helpful; ask someone from the area to invite you to join the local area Facebook group so you can see the discussions being had by the residents; do some research into statistics about the local community that the school is in; go and see the head teacher, this may be easier said than done but worth trying, ask them about what they need; if the latter isn’t forthcoming then try another way in, perhaps via the RE subject leader or a class teacher with whom you have a link; if you’re feeling particularly brave you could join the PTFA!
For some organisations there is a need to begin with the skills that are there in the team and what they feel confident in delivering. Assemblies and RE lessons can be a good way to begin the relationship with the school, once a relationship is established then a school might ask for help with another specific need. Be prepared for failure! If the school need something that is impossible for your team to deliver then it’s difficult to say to a senior leader in school ‘We can’t do that’.
This approach to schools work has to be risky, pioneering and way out of our comfort zones, at least in the beginning!
Here are some examples of schools work that has been in response to a need:
In the early 2000’s The Reality Project was set up in Luton by the then local youth worker, Suzi Stock, attached to St Hughes Lewsey Church. The Reality Project began by giving out virtual babies for young people to care for over a weekend. It went on to offer a full 10 week course of SRE lessons for year 9s which involved each of the students borrowing one of the babies during school hours. The baby simulators included two which had deformities brought about by alcohol or drug misuse during pregnancy. The project was hailed as a success by the local school and those students who took part. Unfortunately it ran just a couple of years before folding, due to a change of leader. The Reality Project not only made a stir in Luton and the surrounding area, it also made an impact nationally: the media were interested in a church project that gave out virtual babies! Other projects like it popped up around the UK and globally, not all run by Christian organisations. The effectiveness of some of these programmes worldwide has been questioned in the media, however I have had the chance to talk to some of the young people who took part and many of them say it helped them understand how hard it was to look after a baby, thereby aiding their decision to wait until they were older.
At Perth YMCA 5 years ago, youth worker James Ballantyne was involved in The Sidewalk Project that began in 2005 (and carried on until 2013) with detached work on Friday and Saturday nights in the local area. It became clear that most of the teenagers they were meeting were from just one of the local schools so they approached staff from the school and offered to be a presence at break and lunch times. The team were eventually also asked to provide lessons on drug and alcohol use. The success of this project was because school was the second point of contact with these young people, the relationships already existed. When they tried it at another school locally there was not the same level of engagement with those young people. Interestingly, and perhaps somewhat controversially, the detached work was not necessarily aimed at stopping young people drinking, but to offer a layer of support from adults that they were not getting because the drinking was happening in the local park.
One current example of addressing the needs of schools and children and young people is E:Merge in Bradford. CEO Andy Sykes explained that his organisation was borne out of a foundational belief in the need to work holistically with young people and children: school is where 5-16yr olds spend most of their time and so working with schools is a key part of the work E:merge do. They currently work with 8 different schools, primary and secondary. In one academy they work with 80 young people on a weekly basis using mentoring and coaching techniques, some in one-to-one sessions, some in small groups, always in an ongoing capacity rather than offering a six week ‘course’ because it is clear that long-term relationships are what makes a difference to the young people they support. E:Merge try to work mostly in the schools in areas where they also employ a Community Youth Worker, an example of this is the Hut which they operate out of that is opposite the Academy. Here the team including the Community Youth Worker offer an after school drop in involving food and drink and the chance to extend the relationships not only with young people who access their one-to-one work but also many others from the school. E:Merge intentionally position themselves as a ‘professional intervention’ when approaching a school, working closely with schools to show the impact of their work. Their approach to schools work is that it should stand alone, but not on its own as it’s always in the context of holistic work with young people and children that involves every aspect of life.
So, here’s a challenge for you: will you step out of your comfort zone and take a risk in order to support the young people and children in your schools? Remember that the greatest learning comes from our greatest failures and go for it!