There are few outlets for teenagers in Enfield – except to join a gang. A new Oasis Academy in the area is seeking to address the needs of the whole community
Imagine yourself back in the Middle Ages. Where did you go for an education, medical care, spiritual advice and perhaps even a job? The local monastery. It was the centre of the community, the physical and spiritual hub of the village or city in which you lived. Now take yourself forward to the present day. Where do you go? In the London Borough of Enfield, a new Oasis Academy is aiming to repeat this ancient, holistic notion of a hub of the community.
Founded just three years ago, this £32 million building boasts a GP’s surgery, play groups for under-5s, a youth work team, a school that will one day accommodate more than 1,000 teenagers and a church.
Instead of a monastery, there’s an ultra-modern building with an atrium finished in beech wood. Instead of monks, there are teachers and youth workers who live in the surrounding streets.
The Academy hasn’t so much reinvented the wheel as taken an old cartwheel and dusted it down for reuse. Yet its image is high-tech, ultra-modern, fresh and energetic. What’s it trying to achieve? Is this the face of the church of the future? John Walton is the principal of Oasis Academy Enfield. His glass-fronted office abuts the front entrance, so he sees every child come to school and – just as importantly – they see him. Walton’s formative teaching experience was in Africa. And today he still believes in the African motto, “It takes the whole village to teach a child.”
“This is a village in a town,” he says. “You can’t compartmentalise a child’s life into school, football, youth work. It takes the whole village to be involved. That way there’s more chance.”
In Enfield, he believes, the children need that chance and deserve it too. “Because of a lack of community facilities, there wasa feeling that they [local people] were left out, left behind,” he says. “They wondered, ‘Do people really consider us?’” And the answer to that question was generally ‘no’, or at least that’s how people felt. The local schools were all, apparently, over-subscribed, despite the fact that they didn’t have the most glittering academic records – with pass rates at GCSE ranging between 48 and 67 per cent. Then there was the gang culture to consider. Enfield Lock, where the Academy stands, seems like a quiet, suburban area. There’s little graffiti. The houses are well-maintained. Yet a Metropolitan Police report in 2007 showed that Enfield had a serious gang problem. It had the second highest number of gangs in the capital, only coming behind Hackney, which had 22 gangs.
The report found that nearly half of London’s gangs had been involved in serious assault. Gangs, it claimed, are responsible for more than a fifth of youth crime in London. In 2007 Enfield had 13 of them.
So, when the Academy held its open day for children and parents – long before the new building was erected – John Walton realised just how much the school meant to the community. “A Dad approached me wearing his work clothes. He said, ‘This school will give this area a bit of hope.’ No pressure then,” jokes Walton.
Today, this hope is becoming a reality. So far there are 540 11-13-year-olds in the first three years of the school. There are no more than 25 children to a class, plus there’s a huge sports hall, outdoor games area (where boys are playing football during lunch hour) and a restaurant run by a French chef.
It’s all paying dividends. “The kids now do have a very positive outlook,” says Walton. “They have an opportunity to be successful. The parents can see that what we’re offering is in the best interests of their children and their families. They’re beginning to see opportunities open up that they’d never have thought about for their children.”
Gang culture is still an issue. But the school has aimed to prevent its influence getting into the classroom. “It’s a real problem,” says Walton. “Our boys are very attracted to the gangs and we work hard to get them away from it. Why do they get into it? It’s a combination of poverty, family breakdown and [looking for] a sense of purpose. We are working to give them a different pathway.” Routes to that pathway are evident all round the school. The main staircase to the classrooms features paintings of inspirational people including Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Sir Bob Geldof. Classroom walls are decorated with posters which say, “Pause before a lesson. Respect others. Support others. Celebrate others’success. Feel safe, learn, be respected.”
Respect is key to the school’s culture and to the whole hub. But it’s not the demanded ‘respect’ of gangs or rap artists. For John Walton, respect lies at the heart of the Christian message which forms the ethos of the school.
“This is a Christian school, not a school for Christians,” he says, adding that there has been ‘an incredibly positive reaction from the local community’ to the school’s Christian ethos. “The thing at the heart is the ethos,” he says. “Targets don’t deliver results. When the values that this place is founded on come first, we can then deliver the rest of it.
“Jesus’ message is one of unconditional respect. He taught us to love and forgive and that equates to respect to people who don’t have a Christian background.”
So with the Christian message so central, how key is the church in Oasis’ Academy? It’s early days for a fledgling congregation of 15 people that held its first service in the building during September.
Two leaders – Craig and Rachel Bird – moved to the area during the summer and have begun the long, slow process of building a church. But both Craig Bird and John Walton are convinced that the school and the church will interlock and interweave.
“The vision would be that the hub would fill a spiritual void in the area,” says Bird. “There’s nothing there for people at the moment. Our job is to put the heart into the community. There’s nothing new about this model,” he adds. “We are inspired by the early Church. Jesus went where the people were. He didn’t say, ‘Come to temple’. So it’s important that this church is part of the community, which is what this is. Through our actions and our presence people will see Christ in us and hopefully find that attractive.”
Even the local MP, Joan Ryan, supports this view, describing the Academy as “fantastic”. But she adds, “My vision for the Oasis site is not just of a school, but a hub of the community, where children go to school and adults learn new skills, where people visit their doctors and youths play sports. We’ve already agreed a new health centre for the site and I’m confident that the Oasis site can become the heart of a new community in Eastern Enfield.”
John Walton agrees. “This isn’t just another initiative,” he says. “This is a long-term commitment. Oasis’ [Christian] ethos holds everything together. The church’s role will grow and it will be part of the structure. Some families will come to church. Some will come here for the youth work. I think that this is the way that church and school and community should be done. I would love to see it rolled out across the country. It’s early days, but I’d tell anyone that this is the way to do it.”
The Youth Worker - Kat Simmonds
At 26, Kat Simmonds has a challenging job on her hands. She helps run all the events for 11-19-year-olds that Oasis provides. She’s in touch with as many as 70 youngsters each week through a variety of youth clubs, as well as her presence in the school. “The youth work doesn’t look Christian,” she says. “We work with Muslims. We don’t do a Bible study, but they know where we are coming from.”
Youth club staples of pool and table tennis are provided, as well as day trips to Brighton and rural holidays. Simmonds says that gang issues are key to the area. She says that youngsters are either judged for their lack of gang involvement, pressurised to join or have been victims of a mugging. “The gangs are here. It affects everybody,” she says. Postcodes are vital to the gangs’ identity. So, when she took a group of local youngsters to Brighton for the day, she says that they were ‘overwhelmed’ by the lack of postcodes on the road signs. “They really struggled with it because they didn’t know where they were. We want to show them that there is more to life than their estate, which they often don’t leave.
“There’s a negative side of gangs. But they also get acceptance. In some ways the friendships that develop are like a family. So we are trying to show them this, but in a situation where there’s no violence. We want to show them that they are accepted and believed in.”
That can be difficult. Simmonds says she’s been threatened with having her neck broken and having her house burned down. But she also speaks of individual ‘transformations’, of praying with troublesome youngsters and their parents, of a change in the atmosphere.
“The mood in the community changes day by day,” she says. “It used to feel really oppressive when I came here and no one wanted to live here. This was the forgotten place. But now it’s getting more positive. It’s not just Oasis. There is new life here.”
The Children's Worker - Kerry Freshwater
Three-year-old Emily wears a pink dress and matching shoes and socks. She’s playing at Oasis’ centre for the under-fives. She was their first customer, banging on the door to be let in on her first day.
If she was a barometer for the way other children would react, then the weather looked set fair. Emily walked in and said, “Wow”. There’s a lot to say ‘wow’ about if you’re under five. You can play indoors with the make-up kit and horse. You can paint. Make pretend tea. Read. Sit on the little red leather sofas. Learn your numbers. Or you can play outdoors in the covered area in the Academy’s playground. Screened off from the teenagers and protected from the weather, there’s lots for you to do in the fresh air. There’s a sandpit, a caterpillar to crawl through, some play dough, water and there’s drawing to be done, if running about and blowing off steam isn’t enough.
Some 250 families are already members. Two more families join each day. And for many, the centre is a life-saver. “People are quite isolated in their homes,” says Kerry Freshwater. “They are quite cut off. We want to bring parents in and draw them out of that isolation.”
Teenage mums and families from Turkey and Africa all find a warm welcome here. For one mother this proved to offer a muchneeded fresh start.
“She was very isolated,” recalls Kerry. “I visited her and she told me that she’d attempted to take her own life. Because she’s come here she’s made a friend and they now support each other. Christianity runs through everything we do. Everybody is made to feel important and welcome. Whatever culture you’re from, we want you to feel comfortable here, and we go out of our way to make sure that happens. There’s a bit of a buzz here,” she says.