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Ascend: All Saints Church, South Oxhey

Ascend is based in the South Oxhey housing estate in Hertfordshire.

Originally a local authority estate, South Oxhey was built after the Second World War mainly to accommodate Londoners bombed out during the war. With a population of about 13,000, South Oxhey is the largest social housing estate in the Three Rivers District Council area. It has proved a largely stable community with some second and third generations still living on the estate, but also with third generation worklessness. Its eligibility for regeneration funding in the past underlined the extent of deprivation. Until recently, the housing was in a very poor state of repair with only about 40% having central heating. Housing associations took over the housing from the Council and had to try to bring the homes up to decent homes standard. Right-to-buy meant that some of the better houses passed into private hands, but now they tend to be the ones in the worst condition. Now, too, the Council recognises the need to update and improve community facilities. Encircled by trees, South Oxhey is hidden from view from the more affluent areas that surround it. Single roads can separate people whose life chances are poles apart.

Some conditions have improved over the past eight years since the present incumbent arrived through the introduction of anti-social behaviour legislation and increased policing, better housing, improved schools and with the arrival of two Christian doctors. Nevertheless, it can still be said that the estate’s appearance is deceptively nice. “It is the toughest area I’ve known even though I’ve worked in some of the most deprived parts of London. People here are the saddest I’ve ever met.” The estate has also suffered from a very high turnover in staff such as teachers and clergy. The present incumbent is the 10th vicar in 50 years and there is a similar pattern across other denominations. However, she has been at All Saints for 8 years and the Ascend Project Director has held that post for over 10 years.

All Saints Church has an average attendance of 40-50 adults on a Sunday plus children. The congregation is fairly young compared with many with a highish proportion in their 30s, which reflects the demography of the area. Now about 25% of the congregation are Black African and African Caribbean.

Origins of Ascend

During the period of the Single Regeneration Budget programme in South Oxhey, local people began to realise that they needed to do something to help South Oxhey become more stable in terms of employment and housing and to give a greater feeling of belonging. Ascend opened in August 1996 at All Saints Church, South Oxhey, founded by a small group of local people led by the then incumbent. They wanted to counteract the problems of unemployment, social deprivation and learning disabilities.

Ascend services

Ascend welcomes all no matter what their beliefs, background or ethnicity. Ascend’s services are available to anyone in the South Oxhey and Three Rivers District. It aims to:

· Provide education and training opportunities to address the Government’s ‘Skills for Life’ agenda.
· Develop clients’ information technology skills; give them new proficiencies, improved confidence, self-esteem and increased employability.
· Move people forward by challenging perceived barriers to education and training, providing people with more choice and control over their lives.
· Develop new services and training opportunities to reflect the changing needs of our clients.
· Develop new services and training opportunities for young people aged 16 – 25 years.

Developing services

When it began if 1996, Ascend addressed issues around worklessness and young homeless on the estate. It took over a project for homeless young people aged 16 – 25 years that was also based at the church. This ended about four years ago because the need had diminished and larger organisations - Herts Young Homeless – were dealing with the young people. Over time, Ascend has expanded its initiatives, including those for young people, to reflect the current needs of the community, providing a wider range of courses and working in partnership with a range of other organisations. Ascend offers literacy and numeracy classes, ESOL, IT skills from basic to intermediate, counselling, confidence building classes, classroom assistant training, craft classes, RaW classes (very basic literacy). It also provides careers advice and guidance – CV writing and interview training.

Since Three Rivers District Council made available a piece of land for a peppercorn rent, Ascend has run an allotment project, Dig Deep, which offers training and support for vulnerable adults and ex-offenders.

Most recently, a new project, Step Up, has opened: a partnership with Herts Mind Network to offer training and support to people with mental health needs.

The Organisation

Ascend is a charitable company limited by guarantee. It has seven trustees appointed by the members of the company plus others on the management board who are recruited by the trustees. Between them, members of the management board have experience in business, government, education and social work. The board meets monthly. The Project Director takes decisions in relation to day-to-day running. She submits a written report to each meeting and all other members of staff submit written reports quarterly and attend meetings to discuss their work and its outcomes.

In addition to the Project Director there are two full-time and three part-time staff: a Guidance Worker, Course Leader, Client Support Worker, Outreach Worker and Administrator. Ascend also uses a part-time consultant for fund-raising and public relations.

Leadership

is given by the Trustees, who are very actively involved, and the Project Director. “We work very closely together.”

Resources

At the start, Ascend worked from a mobile classroom until the new church building was completed in 2000. The main source of finance came from SRB funding. Now the work is based in the church building and in a building provided by Hertfordshire County Council and Three Rivers District Council. Ascend pays rent for the church and other premises and Ascend pays most of the utility bills for the church building. Conversely, church income pays for the Administrator who is also the facilities manager.

In 2009/10, Ascend’s income rose to £230,000. This included the first year of a Big Lottery grant and contract income of £70,000 from various government training authorities. In addition, there were donations from individuals and churches and money from fund-raising events amounting to £36,000. However, contract income has halved this year because contracts are going to larger organisations. The position has been helped this year by the advent of Step Up. It is easier to secure funding for a new initiative than it is to gain continuation funding.

There are over 30 volunteers giving a minimum of 5 X 37 hours per week, which calculated on the basis of the minimum wage amounts to £187 per week. Their work includes meeting and greeting clients, giving one-to-one help in classes, counselling, acting as IT tutors, carrying out IT maintenance and a range of administrative tasks.

There is funding until the end of this year. “We always ensure we have enough for the following term.”

Non-financial help and support

Ascend has support from churches locally through volunteers and trustees; the Diocesan Social Responsibility Officer is a trustee as is the Chief Executive of CUF. The Bishop of St Albans has become a patron.

“I believe we are doing work that we should be doing and doing it very cost effectively but it is relatively unsupported and certainly it is shameful that the government expects the Third Sector to do all this without funding.”

Links with other organisations

Ascend works closely with Three Rivers District Council, Hertfordshire Adult Learning Service, West Herts College and Herts Mind Network and has teamed up with another local organisation, ‘Farming for All’ for the allotment project.

Ascend has also been an active participant in the Three Rivers Local Strategic Partnership which has led to greater support from public sector agencies.

Outcomes

Since opening in 1996, Ascend has helped over 3,500 clients and helped over 500 young people threatened with homelessness either to find safe accommodation or to return home. In 2009/10,

· Over 4,000 people sought Ascend’s services.
· Of those, about 600 clients moved into either paid or voluntary employment as a direct result of Ascend’s work.
· 500 clients used the Information, Advice and Guidance service.
· 252 certificates were awarded to clients on courses including ICT, Literacy, Numeracy, BBC RaW Class, Speaking with Confidence, Digital Photography, Internet and Email. One student was recognised as ‘Student of the Year’ at West Herts College.
· 8 clients became Ascend’s ‘Learning Champions’ to advocate and promote the work of Ascend.
· Gareth Malone – Ascend’s first patron and Director of South Oxhey’s Community Choir – presented over 200 certificates to the clients at the annual awards evening.

Softer targets, such as building people’s confidence and self esteem, are equally important but harder to measure.

Ascend itself and its staff have also received recognition and numerous awards, such as:

· Re-accreditation by Matrix – the national quality standard for organisations delivering information, advice and guidance.
· Re-accreditation as an Investor in people.
· High Sherriff’s Award in 2009.
· Hertfordshire Business Award 2008 for Business in the Community.

Success factors

Ascend’s strapline is ‘Success with compassion’. Everyone is treated as an individual and given support throughout their contact. No-one is ever turned away even though there is a great temptation to at times. “We adopt a holistic approach to problems recognising that everyone has multiple problems that all need to be taken into account and addressed.”

Barriers

Funding is always an issue and an enormous amount of time and energy goes into preparing funding bids. Money from contracts has halved in 2011 because they are going to larger organisations.

It is an isolated context in which to work, both emotionally and intellectually. “I get involved in the diocese partly as a respite” even though taking on such extra responsibilities may increase the possibility of burn-out. Involvement in the diocese also provides a platform to raise the profile of deprivation which is a necessary counterbalance to the tendency for richer and poorer communities to have little understanding of one another where their only window on the world is through the media.

Challenges and opportunities

Raising funds is always going to be a challenge as is the nature of the area and community. There is a real issue now about working in consortia where the largest organisation gets the contract and then give out subcontracts. Even when subcontracting happens, agreeing terms and the allocation of work and funding is both challenging and time consuming.

“We can see that the cuts in public expenditure are going to affect us both directly as an organisation in our ability to raise funds and indirectly because needs amongst out client group are going to grow. There are already signs of issues resulting from the impact of recent policy changes. The switch from Incapacity Benefit to Job Seeker’s Allowance means that claimants have less money but are frequently still unemployable. There are concerns that recent improvements on the estate will go into reverse with the cuts in public spending. For example, cuts to the Police brought an immediate rise in crime, though it has levelled off again. Another anxiety is the potential effect of Housing Benefit changes as there could be an exodus from London of people seeking affordable housing with South Oxhey as a first stop in their search.

These can be construed as challenges, but also as opportunities. This is illustrated by the work we have started to do in the mental health sphere. There are very few resources locally for people with mental health issues or learning disabilities and so there is an opportunity for us to do more.”



Canon Pamela Wise

http://www.ascend.org.uk/