Surrey Square: Why Community is Key

Matt Morden Co-Headteacher, Surrey Square Primary School

Fiona Carrick-Davies Family Worker, Surrey Square Primary School

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Schools In Their Communities: Taking Action and Developing Civic Life is a collaboration between Big Education and Citizen School.

Surrey Square is a school at the heart of the community it serves, meeting not just the educational needs of its pupils but also responding to the plethora of social issues facing local families. Surrey Square is one of the 9 schools that serve the Aylesbury Estate in South East London. The estate, which is currently undergoing a vast regeneration programme, is the largest in the country, and the high-rise blocks can be a foreboding sight. Surrey Square is a non-selective state school for children aged 2-11 years. The number of pupils on free school meals and with special educational needs and disabilities is almost double the national level and the number of pupils with English as an additional language is significantly above. The school serves ‘the global majority’, since 90% of pupils are from non-white British heritages. A large number of our families hail from West Africa, and we also serve communities from Bangladesh, Somalia, Algeria, Peru, Columbia, Poland, Jamaica, Lithuania, Sierra Leone, and many other places! We are immensely proud of our community that works and learns together in an atmosphere of mutual respect and tolerance.

At Surrey Square, we have a clear mission of “personal and academic excellence; everyone, every day”. This drives everything that we do as a school. The “and” is critical for us as we believe that whilst excellent academic outcomes are a pre-requisite for success at secondary school and beyond, we also know that in our modern world we need to equip our children with much more than this in order to enable them to thrive in life and contribute positively to society.

98% of our families sit within the lowest 40% on the Income Deprivation Affecting Children Index (IDACI). Despite these challenges, the children leave us achieving above national results in the core subjects which we believe is due to the emphasis we place on “personal excellence” whilst children and their families are a part of the Surrey Square community. In our school mission, the “personal” comes first – this is essential, as children’s basic needs have to be met in order to enable them to access their academic learning to the best of their ability. If something in a child’s home life is affecting their ability to learn then we see it as our duty to address this first.

The “personal excellence” aspect of our mission has 5 key elements:

  • Everyone taking the time to listen and notice
  • The pastoral team enacted to support the most vulnerable in our school community
  • Part of the core curriculum – explicit teaching of the core values (responsibility, enjoyment, respect, perseverance, compassion and community)
  • Adults seen as role models of the values
  • Identifying relevant causes and campaigns in order to support our specific community

Our personal excellence framework hangs on our core values of responsibility, enjoyment, respect, perseverance, compassion and community, all of which are vital in enabling our children to be positive and active members of our society. The values have been developed into characters. Chief among these is Col Community (see picture) who reminds the children of the value of inter-cultural understanding, the importance of listening, learning about other cultures and sharing stories about our own. His tag line “small but mighty” shows the children that anyone has the power to make a difference to the world around them – one small act can indeed make a mighty change.

At Surrey Square, we are proud of our community work which goes beyond the borders of our school making that bigger change. There is absolutely no question as to why we do this – it’s an instinctive and unequivocal response to what our children and their families need. The first item on the personal excellence list states “everyone taking the time to listen and notice”. This goes beyond the classroom, into the playground, into families’ homes and beyond. What is it that our families need in order for children to learn? What are the current issues in our ever-evolving community that affect children’s lives and what practical actions can we put in place?

We have a number of strategic teams built around the personal excellence part of our mission including our Pastoral Support Team and Community Leadership Team. Our Pastoral Team meets without fail once a week – discussions focus on our most vulnerable pupils, parents and indeed whole families and sometimes the wider community. The team consists of members of the senior leadership team, SENCO, Designated Safeguarding Lead, Family & Community Coordinator, Place2Be School-based Manager, alongside visits from outside professionals. Class teachers are welcome to attend for their own professional development, or to contribute about a particular child. A team approach is vital so that a shared responsibility is undertaken, expert knowledge is shared, workload distributed, and all key staff are fully-informed. This meeting is NEVER cancelled and is an essential safety-net for each member of the team, where accountability is shared and mutually understood.

Fiona Carrick-Davies is a key member of the Surrey Square team. Her role as Family & Community Coordinator is absolutely critical to our work and is shared with parents through a leaflet that goes out to all new families at the school. Fiona leads on supporting our most vulnerable families – building trusting relationships, identifying current challenges, and finding ways to ease the burden of these and resolving them where possible.


Deprivation is a huge challenge for many of the families we serve. Because almost all of our families sit within the lowest 40% on the IDACI, hunger, poverty, and housing difficulties are common. Specific causes of poverty for our families include unemployment, low wages, welfare delays or changes (e.g. Universal Credit) and high immigration fees. This leaves families in a constant state of insecurity and unable to afford basic food, shelter, bedding, and clothing, which are included as an absolute baseline of human requirements in the lowest layer of Maslow’s hierarchy of need.

Consequences of this on families include:

  • Inadequate housing, e.g. multiple occupancy properties, sofa-surfing, very poor hostel accommodation, displacement.
  • Inappropriate shelter – e.g. Church Halls, Night Buses, Police Stations (if evicted).
  • Cycle of high immigration application fees and NHS charges.
  • Lack of access to welfare entitlements.
  • Hunger and poor nutrition.
  • Job insecurity.
  • Lack of adequate and affordable childcare.
  • Deteriorating health (both physical and mental).


Hunger: We address hunger through our free daily Breakfast Club. This is supported by the wonderful charity Magic Breakfast. There is no stigma to our Breakfast Club; it is open to all – parents, grandparents, older siblings on their way to secondary school. It is a community in itself and allows families to socialise, play, and exercise before the school day has even started. In the most acute of cases, the school works closely with local food banks in order to provide vulnerable families with food vouchers to enable them to ensure that the whole family is fuelled, particularly essential during weekends and holidays. We also work with various local providers, such as Mercato Metroplitano, Central Southwark Community Hub, and the Salvation Army who provide specific activities aimed at tackling Holiday Hunger.

Lack of enrichment: Free clubs are allocated to those children in need. Holiday referrals are made in association with organisations such as Free to Be Kids to enable children to enjoy a stimulating range of experiences during the longer holidays.

Housing: Fact-finding, advocacy and referrals play a key role in this. The school will support families with writing letters or emails to the local authority, lobbying local politicians, and signposting to local and London partners in order to ensure accommodation is adequate and appropriate for our families. The school will seek donations and apply for grants for bedding and furniture in order to ensure families have access to funds to ensure, for example, that their children can sleep on beds rather than the floor or have a table to complete homework on.

Depression, anxiety and poor mental health: The school-based counselling service Place2Be plays a key role in ensuring that children and their families’ mental health needs are addressed. During Pastoral Support Team meetings, children and families are discussed and appropriate support put in place. Place4Parents enables us to refer parents to counsellors based within the school premises – we see more parents taking these spaces up as they have a trusted relationship with the school and thus feel safe. Weekly coffee mornings are held at school to ensure that parents have opportunities to informally support and connect with each other.


Why citizenship?

A key part of the community work that is done at Surrey Square involves listening to the needs of our community. We must constantly address the evolving challenges that our families are facing – it isn’t up to us to decide what the priorities are, but instead we rely on the knowledge and viewpoints of those with lived experiences. Since the 2013 Hostile Environment policies came into force, immigration and citizenship became an increasingly visible challenge for our community. It was clear that this was having a damaging effect on our families in many ways. The huge fees of applying for Leave to Remain, renewing those papers or applying for British citizenship are crippling for families already in a state on poverty. British Citizenship for children of parents with irregular immigration status costs £1012 per child. These children have a right to register as British Citizens if they were born here and have spent 10 continuous years in the country, but the cost is prohibitive as most of these parents are in low-wage employment or are actually unable to work due to their own immigration status. Some of these families might also have No Recourse to Public Funds (this is a restriction the Home Office can place on someone’s Leave to Remain) and this can have a devastating effect on families. Families are desperate for their children to gain citizenship, so they resort to extreme measures to pay the fees, including taking out pay-day loans, borrowing vast sums of money from family and friends or going without basics in order to save the money.

Over 40 of our pupils in the past 6 years have applied for citizenship, each time at great, and rising, cost to their families. Part of our curriculum is based on the theme of identity as we see that this enables children to build self-esteem and confidence in who they are. It includes the explicit teaching around what it means to be British and exploring different beliefs, backgrounds and cultures within the framework of our core values. Children without their citizenship do not feel the sense of belonging that they deserve, thus damaging their self-esteem and hindering their ambitions for the future as without their citizenship, many doors would not be open to them. These are tangible doors, such as not being able to access higher education without paying unaffordable overseas fees and as adults, finding securing permanent, stable employment very challenging.


Seeing first-hand the damaging effects that this was causing our families acted as a catalyst for us to initiate building a campaign about reducing citizenship fees. It was important that the strategy for the campaigning involved all school stakeholders from governors, senior leaders, to the whole school community. Trust was critical. Families had to feel that they could share their knowledge and experiences with the school and feel safe to do so – we had to ensure that families felt that they could trust us with their own very personal stories. Numerous parents contributed to this process, all of whom had already built a relationship with our Family & Community Co-ordinator who had supported them with their particular situations. We had been a member institution of Southwark Citizens for many years (a chapter of Citizens UK) and they worked closely with us to help shape what we do as a school in this area. There was now the opportunity to expand this campaign and in order to do this, networking was key. Useful partnerships needed to be nurtured – politicians, non-profit organisations and journalists all played a part in helping our families and children to have their voices heard. Our local MP secured an interview with a journalist from The Guardian, highlighting the effect of immigration restrictions on families. The use of media enabled the conversation to open up to a much wider audience. We were then approached by a number of outside agencies and other organisations who also saw this as an issue and had been campaigning for years, such as PRCBC (Project for the Registration of Children as British Citizens), Coram Children’s Legal Centre and Project 17. This led to our involvement in a House of Lords roundtable discussion with Amnesty UK and PRCBC and then several pupils and their families were invited to the House of Commons to speak to MPs about their personal experiences. This garnered further media coverage, with staff, pupils and their families being interviewed and filmed for TV programmes such as The One Show and local BBC London news.


Being involved in community activism and campaigning has empowered both children and their parents to find their voices and be the experts – they can see that through their actions they are making a difference. PRCBC took the Home Office to court over the citizenship fees in October 2019. We contributed to this class action with a witness statement and children and their families went to the Royal Courts of Justice on the day of the hearing to protest outside. The court case was won by PRCBC – the citizenship fees were found unlawful, which is the first step in getting justice for these families.

We have also been involved in a joint project with Citizens UK and Coram Children’s Legal Centre, the Immigration Action Project. There are two branches to this project, which is still ongoing. Firstly, parents were invited to attend Community Leadership training run in conjunction with both these partner organisations, with an aim to learn about community organising skills and put those into practise by continuing to build a campaign to raise awareness about citizenship. These parents have subsequently led on educating other parents about the issues. Secondly, our parents were offered free, confidential and reliable immigration advice by a specialist immigration lawyer, something that is invaluable in this current climate of fear and mistrust.

The relief for families once their children gain their citizenship is palpable. By supporting 40 children through this process, despite the monetary obstacles, we know that we have helped them become more established in society and that doors that would have been closed to them have now been opened. We are an inclusive school and so, for us, belonging is essential. Once these children gain their British passports, they bring them in to show us, feeling proud as, at last, they can legitimately belong to the only country they have ever called home.

Who wrote this article?

Matt Morden Co-Headteacher, Surrey Square Primary School

Matt joined Surrey Square back in 2015 as Deputy Head Teacher and moved into the role of Co-Head Teacher in 2019 alongside Nicola Noble. Matt is passionate about the education of children in the primary phase and has worked in a number of schools developing curriculum content which is relevant to the context of those school communities. Matt is currently part of the Big Leadership Adventure, working with other leaders in the profession who are passionate about changing the story of education – offering a richer curriculum and “bigger” education for all children.


Fiona Carrick-Davies Family Worker, Surrey Square Primary School

Fiona has been working in education in Southwark for almost 30 years, first as a teacher, SENCO and Senior Leader, and since 2002, in her role at Surrey Square. Fiona’s experience of working across these different roles has emphasised the importance of the child’s life outside the school building, and that schools are uniquely-placed within their community to become an accepting, non-judgemental hub for signposting and advocacy. Nurturing partnerships with a wide variety of organisations has enabled Fiona to take this mission beyond the gates and for the school to become an agent for tangible change.

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