‘It’s much harder than it was 10 years ago’ - the school fighting deprivation

Stuart Allen, headteacher at Mile Cross Primary School, with year one and two pupils. Picture: New A

Stuart Allen, headteacher at Mile Cross Primary School, with year one and two pupils. Picture: New Anglia LEP - Credit: Archant

In 2017, a bold £6m scheme began to improve fortunes for the city's youngsters. As part of our focus on deprivation in Norwich, Lauren Cope looks at what it has achieved so far.

The aim of the country's 12 opportunity areas was simple: improve lives for children, and take successes elsewhere.

But its mission to tackle some of the most stubborn problems facing children in deprived areas is more of a challenge.

One school which has been involved with the Norwich Opportunity Area (NOA) since the start is Mile Cross Primary, with headteacher Stuart Allen sitting on one on its partnership boards.

A proud community, Mile Cross is often listed among the most deprived communities in the country, with 33pc of the school's pupils eligible for free school meals, above the national 18pc.

The primary sits - both geographically and metaphorically - at the heart of its community, in 2017 becoming a particular source of pride when it earned an outstanding Ofsted rating in every category.

Its community, though, means school staff see the daily challenges parents face first hand.

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"In the time I've been here what has really apparent become is that things are not getting easier," Mr Allen said.

"When I started in 2000/01, if you lived on the breadline you could still manage. Today it's much harder than it was 10 or 20 years ago."

Mile Cross Primary School celebrating its outstanding Ofsted report. Photo: HexCam

Mile Cross Primary School celebrating its outstanding Ofsted report. Photo: HexCam - Credit: HexCam Ltd

He said a multitude of factors were behind that - from unemployment and benefit changes to a lack of aspiration and choices made at home.

Having seen the circumstances some pupils face, the school now offers a free breakfast for every child.

It also has a washing machine and tumble dryer, provides pupils pens and pencils, sells uniforms at cost prices and has invested in four minibuses to heavily subsidise trips.

And at Christmas, thanks to the local Boundary pub, the school delivered several food parcels to families.

Toby Whalen, deputy head, said Mile Cross was a proud community, with a feeling among parents that there was always someone worse off.

"Going into homes, sometimes when you see what people are facing it hits you," he said. "Sometimes that can be difficult."

Involving parents in its education is key, Mr Allen added.

The school runs activities for parents too, including Reading Thursdays, where parents and children read together, as well as PE cafés, for families to exercise and cook healthily, parenting classes, literacy classes and even a farmers' market.

Trips into the city centre, Norfolk attractions and the coast are often organised to offer pupils chances others might take for granted. But it doesn't mean the focus is always elsewhere.

Mr Allen said: "Even if you choose to stay in Mile Cross, which is wonderful, you can still go out and get a job. That's the key. People always think social mobility is about leaving, or moving, from a community. But it's not - they can add huge value to an area."

Mr Allen said the goal was to target children as early as they can, pointing to the 83 'communication champions' which have been introduced in schools as part of the NOA to focus on improving communication in young children.

MORE: Cutting exclusions and more work experience - details revealed on £6m Norwich opportunity area scheme

'It is worrying'

Katrina Browning is one of the parents accessing support from the school, describing it as "absolutely amazing".

The food bank at North Denes Primary School. Photo: Joe Norton

The food bank at North Denes Primary School. Photo: Joe Norton - Credit: Archant

She has lived in Mile Cross almost all her life, and said the school is the "biggest support we have", mentioning a café which meets once a fortnight and, among others, held a session on cooking on a budget.

Currently, she acts as a carer for her partner, who receives personal independence payments (PIP) from the government, but in July will join many others forced to pay more for their care thanks to a Norfolk County Council decision.

"We've estimated we'll lose about £33 a week to pay for his support worker," she said. "Our budget is very tight and we are very, very careful. We don't smoke, we don't drink, we do our food shop at Lidl."

She said they had even been forced to sell one of their pets recently, and may be forced to do the same when the changes come in.

"We do our best, but it is worrying," she said.

A Norfolk County Council spokesperson said its charging policy was now in line with the government's.

"We appreciate that everyone's financial circumstances are different and that change can be unsettling, so the council will be supporting people on a one-to-one basis," they said, adding that they were investing £1m to help people find jobs and training they wanted.

What has the project done?

While it will not be a solution for everyone, there are hopes the NOA will give young people a better start in life.

With its funding currently in place until 2021, we asked the Department for Education what the project in Norwich, now halfway through, had achieved so far. They said:

- A £666,000 investment in raising the attainment of disadvantaged pupils, with 35 projects in 29 schools.

- A What A Difference A Day Makes project, where 85 pupils spent Saturdays and some of their Easter holidays doing booster sessions.

- Launch of the Norwich Inclusion Charter, setting out principles to keep children in school.

- A £294,000 investment in a primary aspirations project, helping families think about children's futures earlier.

- Their 83 community champions. Of those, 56 will train other teachers, and four additional community communication champions will build links between families and schools.

Regional schools commissioner Tim Coulson. Photo: Antony Kelly

Regional schools commissioner Tim Coulson. Photo: Antony Kelly - Credit: Archant

Tim Coulson, chairman of the NOA board, said their ambition was to make "Norwich a place where all children flourish and succeed".

"Tackling social mobility is complex and involves generational change," he said. "That's why we're galvanising local stakeholders to work in ways that deliver sustainable and long-term improvements on the outcomes for children and young people."

And some of its targets are on track - its goal to reduce the number of permanent exclusions by two thirds, down from 61 to 2017 to 20, is heading in the right direction, with 41 recorded last year.

The number of eligible three to four-year-olds accessing free childcare is also up to 94.4pc, near its 95pc goal.

The county's placement in exam league tables - both for year six SATs and GCSEs - will need to improve, though, along with the percentage of young people in Norwich going onto higher education or higher level apprenticeships.

How you can help

While food banks and charities are still heavily relied upon, they too are in need of support. To help them help others, you can:

Members of the Norwich Opportunity Area Youth Board gave a presentation to the city's leaders and he

Members of the Norwich Opportunity Area Youth Board gave a presentation to the city's leaders and headteachers. Picture: Lesley Richardson/DfE - Credit: Submitted

- Donate - charities rely on donations, and most, included those featured in this piece, will have information available on their websites on how best to share funds.

- Give time - equally, causes are often in need of volunteers. The food bank, for example, has a variety of roles filled by volunteers, while the Magdalene Group has information on its roles here.

- Spare your shopping - the food bank in particular relies on donations. Find out more about how you can help here.

- Join the opportunity area - to keep up to date with what it is doing, you can follow it on Twitter here, and if you run a business or organisation you can get information on being involved by emailing jacqueline.bircham@newanglia.co.uk

- The Norwich Opportunity Area is also looking for people from all backgrounds and careers to volunteer their time, to offer schools inspiration and experience with their careers programmes.

- What are your experiences with deprivation in Norwich? Do you think enough is being done? Email lauren.cope@archant.co.uk

Mile Cross Primary School, Norwich. Picture: Jamie Honeywood

Mile Cross Primary School, Norwich. Picture: Jamie Honeywood - Credit: Archant

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