Exceptional Education at the Heart of the Community

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'They're not alone – because they've got us to talk to'

“I met a guy the other week and he told me about how he knew Margaret Thatcher and that he used to be a jazz dancer,” says 14-year-old Emre Huseyin. “I love hearing their stories. Some people don’t get the opportunity to come and sit down and socialise. It’s nice that we’re here for them to speak to and they can tell us about their days.”

Emre is a dementia friend at Oasis Academy on the Isle of Sheppey, Kent. He, with many of his peers (there’s around 50 in total, with numbers growing all the time), volunteers at the school’s Dementia Café. The café has been running for five years and welcomes in residents from the local care homes on the island.

“It’s the feeling that they’re not alone, and it’s someone talk to and share their stories. And they all come from different homes, so they can come and make friends with each other,” says Emre.

Half an hour before their visitors arrive, the pupils are hard at work. They’re setting up a giant inflatable Santa (the theme today is, you guessed it, Christmas), sorting out presents, food, organising the registration desk. Someone is always running somewhere to fetch something.

As the buses pull up and their visitors arrive, they crowd around the door, eager to meet them with a smile or a hug. They lead them to the tables, take their bags and coats, and the tables soon fill up: the pupils are keen to check in on their favourite visitors.

Twelve-year-old Lucy Brightman-Stokes says that talking to the visitors about their lives, and telling them, in turn, about hers, has really helped her with her confidence.

Boosting students' self-confidence

“The first time I came here, I didn’t know anyone, not even the pupils, I was scared but I got used to it and I’ve got a few friends now who have helped me with my confidence.

"Before when I was just talking to someone and I was really scared and didn’t know what to say, I just got my mum and dad to talk. But now I ask [the visitors] if they want tea and I have a little conversation with them,” she says.

To kick things off, the residents are treated to music and dance performances. After that, they’re free to spend the time as they please. For some, this includes having a chat to the mayor of Swale Borough, Samuel Koffie-Williams.

“I haven’t been to many others out there but for me, this sets the bar. Every time I come, the kids, the students, are amazing,” the mayor says. “You know what kids can be like, they don’t like older people because they think, 'You don’t understand us – we’re young, you’re old.' But these kids here, they work so closely with them. It’s unbelievable.”

People aren’t just brought here, he says, they really look forward to coming: “It’s more than just a cup of tea and some cake. It’s the interaction.”

No one would describe this café as just a cup of tea and cake. There are mince pies, cupcakes, flapjacks, brownies: each table has a three-tier cake stand. Put your hand in the air, and, as if by magic, a cup of tea arrives. And this week, with the Christmas theme, Christingle oranges are handed out, and so are presents. The pupils want to make sure that every person has at least one present to open on Christmas morning. In one corner, there are two volunteers showing people how to make Christmas wreathes, and in another there are pupils giving manicures and hand massages.

'Heart-wrenching

Eighty-seven-year-old Ethel says that she doesn’t get out a lot, and so really appreciates the café.

“I think it’s absolutely marvellous. You’ve got to take your hat off to all the people involved. It’s not until you get out there and see what there is to help you. It’s a job to take it all in really,” she says.

Jean, 75, sitting next to her, agrees: “I think it’s so fantastic. It’s almost heart-wrenching, you see all these kids grow up in such a hard world, and yet they put all of this on for other people’s benefit and it gives you faith in young people. There’s a lot of good kids out there.

“They tell us some great stories, and we try not to bore them with our stories. And I just think it’s such a fantastic afternoon, and today, the young ones, they bought tears to my eyes."

So how much does this cost? An afternoon out, lots of food, drinks and chatter? Absolutely nothing. For all the residents, it’s completely free.

“We get money from wherever we can. Grants from the council, money from local organisations, money from Tesco. But our volunteers, too, are wonderful,” says Paul Murray, community coordinator at the school.

Murray (or "St Paul" as the local Vicar calls him) is the one behind the scheme. Well, he’s the one who says yes to the pupils when they come to him with their ideas.

“The students wanted to keep doing things for our community. We’ve done all sorts of things for our community, teaching IT skills, cleaning up the centre, fighting for the new bridge that came on to our island.

"One of our students, who was a multi-Diana Award winner, turned around and said, 'Right, we need to do something on dementia. I went, 'Oh right…' My mum had dementia and I wasn’t particularly keen. And she said, 'Yes, we will do it, we will run it and you can come with us.' So we got advice from lots of local people, and we do dementia cafes a lot, at least 10 a year. We do them at school and now we’re doing them outside of school,” he says.

It’s obvious that everyone in the room appreciates, and finds great joy in, the efforts of these students (and the teachers who encourage and organise them). And nationally they’ve been recognised, too.

In November, the school won under-25 category at the Dementia Friendly Awards. They travelled to London, went to a swanky awards do, and even got to visit 10 Downing Street.

“I was so excited. I saw my name and we thought, 'Oh my God, that’s a massive privilege,' and we got to go to 10 Downing Street. It was amazing. We met a lady who's quite famous... I think it’s Angela Rippon. She gave us the award. I never thought I would be in Downing Street there, where Theresa May stands,” says Lucy.

To see the kids win was incredible, adds Murray. “Our kids were just so humble. It was only when they got outside that they said, 'Yes! We’ve won!' We came second last year. We’re not in this to win to anything, but it is important for the school and the island.”

Fancy replicating something like this at your school? Be prepared for anything, says Murray. They never know how many people are going to turn up – the care homes often cancel last minute due to sickness – and it takes a lot of organisation, and a lot of people willing to give up their free time.

Murray says: “I feel knackered at the end of it. But, honestly, I couldn’t put into words how proud I am of those kids.”

Article published via TES, view here