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One in the eye for loan sharks

A school in Sheffield has set up a credit union to help families avoid being exploited. Philippa White reports.

A CREDIT union set up by parents at a Sheffield school in September 2002 is now one of the busiest in the city.

More than 100 parents and pupils at Arbourthorne junior school use the collection point to save money, borrow cash at low interest and protect themselves from exploitation by loan sharks.

Staff say the knock-on educational benefits have been considerable. The school, which was in special measures for three years until last February, serves families from highly deprived inner-city council estates.

Senior learning mentor Wendy Crookes, who runs a parents' education group, suggested the idea of a credit union last summer when a parent cancelled a theatre trip because she had no food in the house and no money to buy a lunchtime sandwich.

"It has just been an amazing success," said Mrs Crookes. "We have parents more involved in school and we have got more involved in the community. Half a dozen positive voices at the school gate are worth an awful lot - and we now have a great deal more than six."

The collection point is staffed by parents, who are taking book-keeping courses, and is open for 30 minutes before school begins on Tuesday mornings.

People who save money for 10 weeks are eligible for a first loan at twice the value of their savings. A pound;100 loan is repayable at pound;106 over 12 months, whereas loan sharks can charge pound;150.

Start-up costs for the credit union of pound;150 have been covered by the local education action zone and the Government's Excellence in Cities programme.

Parent Kerry Fields, who helps to run the collection point, said: "Loan sharks are in the area and the problem is growing, but if people can use the credit union they do not have to get a loan from them."

Parent Tracey Stevens says pupils save anything from 2 pence to pound;40 birthday money.

"We wanted to teach kids that they needed to save rather than borrow in the first place," she said. "My son Jack is saving and now has more money in it than I have."

She says the collection point can deal with as many as 80 people in one morning.

"Parents are really welcomed into school - and that makes the kids feel welcome too," she said.

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