‘I don’t think anyone sees it as being about poverty’

10th August 2018 at 00:00
One summer club’s bid to end hunger is the start of a true partnership with parents, writes Henry Hepburn

Four years ago to the week, the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow had just finished. The event was a jamboree the likes of which Scotland’s biggest city had never seen before, and nowhere was more transformed – for the 12 days of the games, at least – than the East End.

This was where several glistening sports venues had sprung up, where the newly constructed athletes’ village welcomed thousands of elite sportspeople and where their orbiting spectators bustled through an area usually kept well off the tourist trail.

As with the 2012 London Olympics, there was much talk of “legacy”, but such events do not tend to demonstrate a long-lasting effect on communities. True, the athletes’ village in Glasgow has been turned into housing. But for many of its current residents and their neighbours, who know all about social exclusion, the short burst of attention for their community is long forgotten; the solution to the area’s problems is likely to be long term, painstaking, and will require many people to work together.

That is the attitude driving a summer meals programme at Dalmarnock Primary School, which does much more than feed hungry children. Food is a crucial part of the scheme, amid growing awareness that “holiday hunger” can seriously damage educational prospects (“Tackle ‘holiday hunger’ with year-round school meals”, see bit.ly/Meals365). And the Dalmarnock club is part of the Food, Families, Futures programme, launched by charity Children in Scotland in 2015 to tackle food poverty as well as the knock-on effects on education and health.

Engaging families

When the club started in 2016, food was doled out to families, but the caterers insisted that parents could not go behind the scenes. That has all changed now: parents help to plan, prepare and serve the meals. Some have even gone on to obtain Royal Environmental Health Institute of Scotland qualifications – a big deal in an area in which unemployment is rife.

“The good thing is that I don’t think anyone would see [the Dalmarnock club] as being about poverty or a handout,” says Donna Borokinni, a nutritionist who, through her Happy Cooking business, helps parents to prepare meals.

For the club to work, staff say it has to be a drop-in scheme rather than targeting certain children, according to Tony Stubbs, a play ranger for Peek (Possibilities for Each and Every Kid), a Glasgow-based organisation that aims to improve children’s life chances through play and creativity. “We don’t like to do things to people,” he says, explaining that an initiative is more effective if people come to the project voluntarily. Staff started in 2016 by asking parents what they wanted at the club, which this year has run four days per week over four weeks. Some wanted their nails done, and the attitude taken is that if it gets them through the door, then they might become receptive to counselling or meeting with Citizens Advice staff.

When Tes Scotland visits the club, there is a relaxed feel. People drift in at various times – in a typical day there are 70-85 children and adults. A girl of about 18 months marches up and down the corridors with a doll in a buggy, while an older boy is intent on going around showing everyone his toy dinosaur. Although it’s a primary school club, no one enforces age restrictions and a 15-year-old boy with additional needs is also a regular attendee.

There is one rule, though: parents must stay with their children. This, of course, is an era in which engaging parents with school and community life is increasingly seen as crucial (“‘Getting parents to engage with their kids’ education must become a national priority’”, bit.ly/EngagedParents).

Stubbs says that parents – some of whom are here for the third year in a row – are becoming “so confident about being in school”, which is a breakthrough for those who may have had a bad experience as a pupil themselves, and who view it with suspicion.

The many Chinese parents who attend – a large number of Chinese families live in the former athletes’ village nearby – were “really keen to get more involved, but felt language was a real barrier”, says Dalmarnock headteacher Nancy Clunie.

The club tries to organise whichever activities would benefit or interest families, so English classes are arranged. With their new-found confidence, the Chinese families have campaigned to make a nearby road safer (cars would regularly speed along it) and attracted press interest, which Clunie says was a huge boost to the community. “They didn’t think anyone would listen to them,” she explains.

Robert Doyle, a community worker for Thriving Places, an organisation that identifies parts of the city where people may need extra support to deal with “complicated local issues”, says this summer scheme stands above others because it forges genuine, productive bonds between various groups; “partnership”, that overused and bland management word, really happens here. Whether you work for the school, the NHS, Citizens Advice or anyone else, he says, people are flexible and driven by what works best for the families. There is no preset idea of what they need.

The effect on families of seeing the headteacher during the summer, as part of that friendly, informal group of professionals, can be profound. “People like a weel-kent face,” says Clunie, who comes to the club most days. “They see you as a person with trials and tribulations [like them].”

And, says Clunie, the closer bonds that the school has created with families over summer holidays – and during term-time homework and family meal clubs – have led to an improvement in educational results. She has also witnessed fewer dips in pupils’ confidence after the summer break.

An evaluation report identified many benefits for parents: they found it easier, for example, to get their children to go to school and play outside, and also reported their surprise at seeing children happily munching on fruit and vegetables at home.

Doyle says it is “shameful” for such a community focal point as a school to be shut for long periods during holidays, when some families struggle with childcare and keeping their children occupied. Stubbs adds: “Some families don’t look forward to summer holidays – there’s constant pressure to spend money.” Staff make sure that the summer club includes trips to popular family holiday spots, such as Millport and Blair Drummond Safari Park.

Margaret Wood, one of the parents, asks us to make sure that we mention her catchphrase for the club: #OneBigHappyFamily. Without the club, she says, “the summer would be stressful, trying to keep your weans entertained”. Wood adds that her son, James, who is entering P7, is more confident about school, thanks to the support, activities and stress-free setting. She says of the summer club: “You’ve got four weeks where you’re having fun and you know where you’re going.”

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