Case study: Engaging disadvantaged families

Written by: Emma Lee-Potter | Published:
Family focus: Parents taking part in the Catton Grove life-skills courses, which involve activities like cooking and farm visits (above & below)

An initiative at Catton Grove Primary School is opening up the countryside for its disadvantaged children while also engaging parents with life-skills courses. Emma Lee-Potter finds out more

Catton Grove Primary School is only a 25-minute bus ride from the Norfolk coast but up until two years ago some pupils and their parents had never been to the beach. A number of them had never visited a farm or seen a herd of cattle either.

All that is changing now though – thanks in part to an initiative launched by Fiona Sadler, Catton Grove’s pastoral lead and parent support advisor.

With the backing of headteacher Tim Lawes, Ms Sadler came up with the idea of running a Life Skills course for parents. Ms Sadler had delivered a series of parenting classes at the 750-pupil Norwich school in the past but realised that a new course focusing on practical skills like cooking, budgeting and eating healthily would help the most vulnerable parents – and benefit their children too.

The Country Trust, a national education charity dedicated to bringing the working countryside alive for disadvantaged children, has played an important role. The charity already organises farm visits for different year groups at Catton Grove, helps the children to grow vegetables in the school garden and teaches pupils to cook soups and stews with them afterwards.

When the charity first started working with Catton Grove, Ms Sadler suggested that the Life Skills parents should be involved in activities like farm visits as well.

“We were approached by the Country Trust as a school that would benefit from their work,” said Ms Sadler. “I had just started running the Life Skills course so I thought that if we got the parents educated about the countryside then they would educate their children and it would have more of an impact.”

Ms Sadler, a former teaching assistant, has worked at Catton Grove for 18 years. Situated in a disadvantaged area on the outskirts of Norwich, the school has 338 Pupil Premium pupils and 174 on free school meals. Many parents attended the school themselves and some rarely venture beyond the local area.

The Life Skills sessions started in January 2016. Each course runs for 20 weeks and Ms Sadler works with six parents at a time (many lack confidence and have struggled with mental health issues in the past). The group assembles in her Catton Grove office at 9am for the weekly sessions, just after parents have dropped their children off at school. The classes run until 11:20am, enabling those with young children to meet them from the school’s nursery.

“It became clear to me that many of our parents are very isolated and lonely,” said Ms Sadler. “We were meeting the needs of the children but what about the parents? There was clearly a gap. Some of them have never had any encouragement to do anything in their lives and a lot of them had their children when they were very young. They don’t have lots of money, don’t go out very much and had completely lost their confidence.”

During the first course, the Country Trust delivered four sessions to parents, detailing the components of a healthy diet and the nutritional values of different foods. The charity also brought in a selection of vegetables for them to use in their cooking.

“Some parents had never tried vegetables like swede, butternut squash and fresh beetroot,” said Ms Sadler. “Many of them said that eating healthily was too expensive. They didn’t realise that if you go to the right places and cook in bulk you don’t have to buy everything pre-packed.”

As well as running classes on money management and budgeting, Ms Sadler took the parents shopping and showed them where they could buy fresh produce and what they could cook with it.

“Cooking brings people together and gave them a huge amount of confidence,” she said. “We also looked at careers. Some of them suffer from terrible anxiety and the idea of walking into a job centre was very daunting. So I got someone from the local job centre to come and talk to us. They then felt confident enough to go into the job centre themselves and have an appointment. Three of them have now gone into employment and one is about to start college.”

As the parents grew in confidence Ms Sadler suggested a trip to the seaside, an activity they could replicate with their children. The group planned the outing to Cromer themselves, working out the cost, how to get there, what to do if the weather was terrible and how to prepare a healthy picnic. The trip was such a success that some of the mothers met up during the school holidays and spent the day at the beach with their children.

Ms Sadler also got the parents to plan, budget for and cook a three-course meal. The first cohort prepared melon with a selection of salads, a meat platter, pasta with meatballs, homemade garlic bread, sweet potato wedges, fruit salad and chocolate pudding and invited the head and deputy head along to join them. They also hosted an afternoon tea for the governors. “I wanted to build parents’ relationships with the staff so they didn’t feel so daunted,” explained Ms Sadler.

The Life Skills classes have clearly had a huge impact on parents and their children. So far Ms Sadler has run one course for mums, another for dads, and in September she launched a mixed one. The parents who have taken part so far have grown in confidence, developed their skills and learned how to interact with their children.

“Now the parents go home and do the cooking with their children,” said Ms Sadler. “Sometimes the relationship between parent and child wasn’t the greatest because they thought everything had to be about taking the children out somewhere and spending money. Life Skills is about saying ‘you can have fun at home – and cooking is a good way to do that’. The children’s lunchboxes became healthier, they were being fed better at home and because the parents felt better in themselves the mood of the children seemed better too. We’ve noticed that the children are doing more outside activities, whether it’s going to the local Brownie pack or getting involved in football in the community.

“Parents are now socialising more with each other so their children meet up with other children, whereas in the past they’d pick the children up from school, go home and stay very much contained in their own homes.”

At the end of each course, Ms Sadler asks the parents for their feedback – and the comments have been glowing.

One mother wrote: “My confidence has grown. I have become more independent and am able to make decisions on my own without worrying about the outcome or being judged. I no longer feel socially isolated. The biggest impact on my children is having a happier mum who feels more assertive and confident. I am now able to socialise with people outside of my home which also means that my children get to meet up with friends rather than us all staying indoors.”

Another mother said that changing her diet and learning to cook for her family had helped her to lose four stone after being diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. “My children are happier and more confident because I am,” she wrote.

“We have fun together and I now have a strong relationship with my children. The Life Skills group gave me something to look forward to each week. It gave me a purpose to get up. I made some really good friends and we continue to support each other. The Life Skills course saved me.”

Meanwhile, a single father whose wife died 18 months ago said that before he attended Life Skills he had no motivation and felt unable to mix with other people. Now he enjoys cooking and takes pride in planning and preparing low-cost meals for himself and his two children.

“My children are really proud of me, particularly when I bring my cooking home to share with them,” he said. “It’s given my kids the confidence to cook.”

The Catton Grove staff are so delighted with the impact of Life Skills that they are keen to share their work with other schools. Three parents recently spoke to other schools and agencies about the way in which Life Skills has changed their lives and the Country Trust is making a DVD to showcase the project.

“We’re not about keeping it to ourselves,” said Ms Sadler. “Yes, Life Skills was my idea but I was very fortunate in working in a school where the headteacher recognises the importance of working with everybody, not just the children.

“Catton Grove is a very special school in terms of the support and nurturing approach we have. The parents learn to trust us – and once you’ve got the parents’ trust and take the time to be genuinely interested in their needs then everyone benefits. We feel really proud of them.”

  • Emma Lee-Potter is a freelance education writer.

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