A class of their own An education charity is helping children in ways their schools can’t. Stephen Tomkins reports

Sophie (not her real name) seemed unlikely to get a work experience placement. She had severe autism and, at 14, could hardly talk, count or read. Other problems included anger management. She hadn’t been to school for months, but her mother wanted her to have a placement. So the school turned to TrinityLearning, the education support charity based in Trinity Church, Abingdon. Unable to find her anything else, the charity placed her in their own office. It was time consuming, requiring intensive planning and mentoring.

‘It was a challenge to find things to do,’ says Rosemary Perrow, Trinity’s Education and Development Officer (EDO) at the time. ‘We made worry boxes for the year sevens starting in September. We talked. She met user groups, made tea and coffee.’ On the fourth day, Sophie said: ‘My mum says, what are you doing to me? I’m a lot calmer.’ When she started back at school, she was talking and could be understood. The charity found her a weekly placement at a care home. ‘The school told us we had absolutely changed that child’s life,’ says Rosemary.

TrinityLearning began in 2009. The church had a Going for Gold grant from the United Reformed Church for a youth worker, but no youth, so they went to where the young people were, in local schools. Asking head teachers, staff and children which areas they most needed support in, the clear answer was wellbeing. Overworked, under-resourced and demoralised by Ofsted, staff were passing their own stress onto children.

The first project was calming tai chi for teachers. Soon, Trinity’s volunteers were taking groups of children out of the classroom to work on projects like an assembly or a local newsletter, distributed around the town. Over a decade, 300 children have produced 50 newsletters. Nicola Williams, the present EDO, says: ‘We take kids who aren’t confident writers and it gives them a boost. They choose their own topic and recipients. Every child gets it, so it’s a high-profile success that changes the school’s perception of them.’ One child who could not write at all was trained in Photoshop, and used it to create a photo spread in the middle pages. It so impressed his school that they asked him to present an IT lesson.

Other projects include Toolkit for Happiness, which offers activities to children who struggle with wellbeing, including nature walks, planting, making things for others and thankfulness. They also teach their peers the skills they have learned. Meanwhile, Trinity volunteers offer sessions in schools, sharing books with children which help them to talk about feelings and relationships and to develop emotional literacy. Training for this project, called Thinking Books, was developed for Trinity by the counselling service Relate, thanks to the 2018 URC Community Project Award, in which Trinity won joint first prize.

Every week at Kingfisher Special School, volunteers sing with non-verbal children, songs they choose by pointing or smiling at a card. ‘There are children who have spoken their first words in response to Old Macdonald,’ says Nicola. ‘The school values it so highly that they’ve moved the timetable around to place more reliance on it.’

Other volunteers run Thinking Spaces in schools, offering workshops on remembrance, love and reflection. Huge teams of volunteers from 14 churches and other community organisations have created sensory and relaxation gardens in the grounds of three schools.

‘It’s gone from Trinity helping,’ Rosemary says, ‘to the churches helping, to the whole community coming together to help the schools. Which is great, because if you’ve been labelled as a failing school, you feel awful. Having so many people volunteering to help reaffirms the work teachers are doing and tells the kids that they are valued.’

Trinity’s flagship project is Experience Easter. The church is transformed into a series of tableaux telling the Easter story. Volunteers take 60 children at once around, and do small group activities that help them to reflect on things like suffering, hope, praying and living on. ‘It’s not a runof-the-mill Sunday school experience,’ says Rosemary, ‘but a way to enjoy and welcome reflection.’

A number of activities that started at TrinityLearning have grown and been taken on by other churches. Nicola says: ‘Each of our projects is easily replicable by churches, even if whole operation is too much for most.’

A grant from the United Reformed and Methodist Churches allowed TrinityLearning to become a standalone charity, developing policies and procedures enabling them to continue working with children. Nicola is very grateful. ‘It’s very, very difficult to find funding for core costs like staffing. We get a lot grants for specific projects, but if you can’t fund core work, you can’t apply for those things. If the Churches had not been so generous, this couldn’t have happened.’

TrinityLearning was recognised in the United Reformed Church Community Project Awards 2018 – a scheme sponsored by Congregational insurance. Stephen Tomkins is Editor of Reform

26 | April 2020 | Reform

See the original article in the April edition at https://www.reform-magazine.co.uk/2020/03/read-reform-for-free/

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