Beyond the dreaming spires

At the end of the Cowley Road, there is a street called “Between Towns Road”. It is a pretty apt description of the huge disparities in living conditions that exist across Oxford.

Broad perceptions of the city are of academic excellence – but there is more to the place than that. Areas to the south are in the top ten percent most deprived areas nationwide, measured in terms of income, employment, health and education. Academic achievement is well below average. On the Blackbird Leys housing estate, almost half the residents have no qualifications. In some areas the same percentage of children live in income-deprived households. In contrast, in wealthy north Oxford, 0 percent do.

I began this project several months ago, to find out why the stereotypical perceptions of the city as unequivocally wealthy differ so wildly from reality. Determined also, to find out whether the preconceived ideas of Oxford’s suburbs as crime-ridden ghettos are correct. (In a few words – they are not). In the face of public sector cuts, how are areas that have depended on such funds planning for the future? Is the Big Society the load of nonsense Labour says it is – and if so what sort of volunteering might bring fruit instead?

It’s a warm, sunny July day and splodgy green bushes mingle with the grey concrete buildings on the Blackbird Leys estate. Ines Kretzschmar, the community involvement co-ordinator at the Blackbird Leys Housing Consortium, puts down her coffee and begins to speak.

“Often it is very vulnerable people, these people have lots of other things on their mind other than getting more income. I don’t think most people who haven’t lived on the bottom, on the receiving end of benefits, on the receiving end of huge problems like domestic abuse or substance abuse understand how much energy it costs just to stay alive, to get up every morning. I am astounded by the assumption people have that they know what is best for others and then at the same time cutting essential services. There is ten years lower life expectancy here than if you go to Summertown or whatever.”

Ines works on the Community Development Initiative, a Lottery-backed scheme that provides after-school and holiday activities for children and teenagers on the estate. Her work provides support in an area where cycles of poverty and underachievement have become ingrained.

Is it the case that there has been a lack of joined up thinking, meaning too many helpers speckled across too may individual community projects? According to a 2009 report on Blackbird Leys for the Young Foundation, a centre for social innovation: “The ideas about joined‐up working and lateral management have now been current in management thinking for a number of years and yet these lessons do not seem to have been taken on board in Oxford…What is not needed is another community worker.”

But Ines is not so sure. She believes that the size of the Leys and diversity of residents mean that each group knows best what each group needs. “We have to remember people are doing this on a volunteer basis, more meetings means more time, meetings are not always efficient.” So if that means a lack of overarching “policy”, then so be it.

She refers to Maslow’s hierarchy of needs – a psychology model which states that without basic necessities fulfilled, “higher” skills – like lack of prejudice and problem solving – are impossible. She is critical of changes to housing benefit: “The new government doesn’t believe in social housing and now it is called ‘affordable rent’ which means the housing association charges up to 80 percent of the market rate. Quite a few of our residents cannot pay 33 percent – at the same time the government cuts the housing benefits. It is very problematic.”

This is where housing problems feed into wider community issues. If you don’t have a roof over your head, it is infinitely harder to feel motivated or creative.

Reverend Roger Burne, of the Church of the Holy Family on the estate, echoes these views: “When people don’t know if they’ll have enough money to feed their kids ‘till the end of the week, they’ve run out of money to pay the electricity bill and when your child has worn through his trainers and you haven’t the money to replace them…when you’re grappling with all that, you don’t have the sheer energy to think about taking on a community organising role.”

Youth worker Marsha Jackson works on the CDI with Ines, and has limitless energy. Today, African drumming and street art are on the menu. The programme doesn’t turn away anybody who cannot afford to pay the £1 per session fee.

As she hops between kids on one side of the room beating drums, and others wielding fluorescent felt pens, she says: “There are kids here who are off the radar, kids who dropped out of school at 14, kids who can’t spell their own names.” The day after, she is taking a group to Thorpe Park – a place not may of the young people have been before

Lex Francis, a community worker who concentrates on sustainability and outdoor projects, explains that the most effective forms of social work support ideas that children have themselves.

She tells of how a group of four teenage boys wanted to do a charity cycle – they just weren’t sure where to start. Once there was a booster start, though, “they were off, they got sponsorship. That’s a story where young people who lacked confidence, enthusiasm, this shows how being involved in the project, with an adult along side them, just by doing these small things they were driven, they were focused, they were motivated. Basically not only doing that to raise money for the John Radcliffe – that wasn’t for them that was for someone else. They had to train hard, but they did it, the time they are spending in the gym, that was a new thing for them, that was time they were doing something positive that they weren’t able to engage in vandalism and silly behaviour.”

There is more green space in Blackbird Leys than unfair descriptions would have you imagine, and Lex puts it to good use. She’s working on allotments with the GreenProject group at the Oxford Hub charities group – although there is worry about the ownership of some green space and whether it will have to be reallocated for housing. “There is this piece of land which is literally a minute away, it is such a haven, it’s so green, it’s like being in the National Trust, it would be a massive detriment if that was taken away….”

Are sessions that keep kids off the street for a few hours really going to stop them from mischief as soon as class ends, and improve health levels too? When I leave the CDI I see some of the same children kicking around outside the corner shop. Perhaps not entirely, but they will help. It is not a question of actual time, but the realisation that there are other possibilities in life other than loafing around with nothing to do.

Reverend Burne sees the more depressing side of poor health levels in the area. In Oxford, physically activity in childhood is rated as “significantly worse than the England average”, according to a 2010 report for the Department of Health. In the 15 years he has been on the estate, “one thing I notice is more funerals for people in their 30s, 40s and 50s. It gets to you.”

Funding for the CDI is just about holding up – but money is always a blot on the horizon.

Ines explains how they have had to do some serious budgeting to stretch what they have out for as long as possible.

Seventeen-year-old L does music at one of the local sixth form colleges. She plays guitar and piano, and she sings. She highlights one of the main issues on the estate: if you want to make something of yourself, the feeling is that you cannot stay here. “It’s a nice community, but I wouldn’t want to live here forever.”

“If it wasn’t for CDI I’d be in so much trouble”, another girl in Year 10 tells me. She bends over and on the poster she’s working on, writes “It’s are [sic] world, live it, love it, look after it.”

That one incident evidences the low levels of academic attainment in the area, which is a recognised problem. At the Oxford Academy, one of the main secondary schools serving the Leys, 32 percent of pupils got 5 A*-C grades at GCSE including Maths and English. It’s a huge increase from the 2009 figure of 18 percent, but below the national average of about 50 percent. The Academy was set up in 2008, after the failing Peers school was closed down. Peers had a turbulent history, unhelped by the decline of the local motor industry. Mike Reading, the Academy’s Principal, doesn’t take any crap. “Some of those kids are leading complex lives. And what they need from a school is a sense of a belief in them, a passion to work in partnership with their families, not to settle for second best.”

Is it just about money? Undoubtedly financial resources help, and the Academy has been well equipped by £30 million from central government and local authorities. It has facilities comparable with the independent sector – a drama studio, music suite and a state-of-the-art sports pitch. Mr Reading justifies the outlay when “some of our students have faced in very, very short lives more occasions of upheaval and daunting challenge than adults are facing around them”. That explained, it seems more reasonable that resources increasing skills – and thereby engendering the self-confidence needed to break poverty cycles – are laid on heavily.

Mr Reading’s pupils are encouraged to have confidence: “The reason the Academy opened was to break a cycle of under-aspiration… if you look at some of the criteria that are the deprivation measures, some of the super output areas around here are more akin to the inner city of London.

“That does not mean to say there is any excuse for under-aspiration, it is simply a case it is demonstrating how much work still needs to be done in some areas of the city.”

The Schools Plus initiative is already progressing, allowing mentors to work on campus with pupils. Support from such programmes “gives me huge reason to be optimistic and to be hopeful”, Mr Reading adds.

Amy Anderson, project support officer at the Oxford Hub, explains the work also going on in maths, English and reading at Oxford Academy: “This year we have the strong backing of senior staff to roll out the other programmes there.”

It is not only academic subjects where support is needed. “Sportslink” is the provisional title of a project aiming to get college football  teams on board, coaching six youth groups in the city, culminating in a tournament. “Volunteers will hopefully build strong relationships with the young people they coach”, Amy says.

She emphasises that funding cuts to youth services have made things difficult: “Since the dramatic restructuring of youth services in Oxfordshire last year the opportunities for young people in deprived areas to engage in sport and recreational activity have decreased dramatically.”

According to Labour figures, the Conservative Oxfordshire County Council has cut its budget for youth services from £3.7m to £1.4 million. Half of its £18.9 million cuts to children, young people and families is set for 2011/12.

The County Council says there will be new “community hubs”, which will provide a better level of service. Andrew Smith, MP for Oxford East, is sceptical: “The County Council’s assumptions about donations are ambitious, especially in this economic climate. It is not just youth services – it is the impact on early years…if this funding gets chipped away the core task of raising life chances, raising educational attainment, will be significantly impaired.”

In 2010, the Council put forward proposals to cut funding for 20 of its 43 public libraries, including the one on Blackbird Leys. When some parts of the estate rank amongst the top ten most deprived areas nationwide for educational attainment, it seemed an illogical step to close the one place residents could go for books and computers. Labour County Councillor Richard Stevens fought the closure on legal grounds and won. But Cllr Stevens still has reservations: “They’ve identified the libraries that form part of their comprehensive network and that will retain full funding and staffing [but] they still ask for people’s views on volunteer efforts in them. My fear is that they will try at a later stage to slip in staff cuts.”

Stevens is cynical about the “Big Society’ volunteer-plugs-the-gaps approach to government.

“The idea [of the Big Society] came up in the context of wealthy parts of Oxfordshire that are familiar to David Cameron – I think demographically you have a lot of wealthy people, you have a lot of people who don’t necessarily need to work – you also have in the demographic profile a generally older population…Blackbird Leys is absolutely full of children, full of families, and families who have to work to look after their kids do not by and large have masses of time to spend on the Big Society.

But is it not a good idea to ask for volunteers? Mr Smith sums up the situation:

“It is a big insult to come in and assume volunteers can come in and run a library. If they can amplify services the library is providing I don’t have a problem with that, but these are things you need to plan for properly, they cannot be rushed in as part of cost saving. Modernise and improve the library service yes; cut it away, no.”

The recurring theme is that the most effective form of social regeneration, and breaking cycles of deprivation, is self-belief. A crusade is unwanted, unwelcome and ineffectual. What is needed are encouragement to engender self-confidence, and the realisation that what life puts on one’s plate is not one’s lot. Volunteers can help – but not replace.

It is not the University’s obligation to go out and help every underprivileged child in Oxford. But as with any other institution it has a responsibility to the community it surrounds – nay, infiltrates and swarms through. As Andrew Smith points out: “Getting involved in community work now has the same kudos as sporting or academic work – students are more interested.”

Ines recounts one incidence that sums up the importance of getting teenagers on board: “On the Leys Youth project, I was sitting with two groups of boys, one of them was the 13 or 14 year olds, and one was the 19 and 20 year olds, and what struck me between the two groups was the differences in aspiration. The younger group was still so full of aspiration, wanting to go to university, have their dreams, and then you see the older ones, who I’m sure had exactly the same aspirations at this age and then going through these years, were unable to access the things they would have needed to do it, and then end up in a situation with no job, with no prospects.I think working with the young people who have the aspiration giving them good experiences, strengthening the belief things are possible, that would be fantastic.”

Lizzie Porter