Community groups at the heart of HeadStart - HeadStart student Dragons evaluate Phase 2 Community projects

HeadStart Wolverhampton has always placed young people at the centre of decision-making about how programmes should be structured, and, critically, about how funding within the city should be distributed.

Back in December 2014, our HeadStart Student Partnership board - our 'Dragons' - reviewed bids from 38 Wolverhampton voluntary and community projects for financial support as part of Phase 2 of Big Lottery funding. Working alongside education and mental health professionals, the young people carefully evaluated each bid before making decisions on which projects to fund, and how much money to allocate to each.

On Tuesday 24th November 2015, representatives from the voluntary and community groups returned to face the young Dragons again. In a series of presentations and question / answer sessions at The Workspace, they shared outcomes, stories and testimonies from their funded projects; the positives and negatives, the grand successes, and the learning and adaptation that followed feedback from young people.

40% of HeadStart funding in Wolverhampton so far has been allocated to community and voluntary work

Before the presentations, the chair of the HeadStart partnership board, councillor Viv Griffin, fielded questions from young people, teachers and professionals about current progress and future HeadStart plans. Viv observed that, in Phase 2, 40% of HeadStart funding in Wolverhampton had been allocated to community and voluntary work, with work with schools and health services making up the remainder. She emphasized repeatedly that work with voluntary and community groups will be at the heart of HeadStart Wolverhampton's Phase 3 bid for further Big Lottery funding.

Voluntary organisations were also introduced to the next steps in evaluating their projects by Karl Royle from the University of Wolverhampton. Karl and his team will be carrying out a formal evaluation of community projects over the next two months. They will be interviewing project leaders and key workers, and asking them to reflect on the 'Main Significant Change' for young people or families who have participated in their projects. This evaluation process by the University mirrors the evaluation which has just been carried out on HeadStart programmes in schools. Read all about that evaluation here.

The Presentations

Many presenters engaged the audience with interactive activities to illustrate their projects. Many also shared video materials, testimonies, and examples of creative work from young people.

Some common themes emerged from the presentations:

  • Voluntary groups need to work and communicate more closely with one another to understand neighbouring projects and support organisations. This will allow them to refer young people between programmes, so that they can match provision to their needs and interests.
  • Building trusting, non-judgemental, relationships with parents is critical. Many of the issues experienced by young people have their roots at home in negative relationships.

All of the community groups faced challenging, sometimes robust(!) questioning from the young Dragons, questions such as:

  • What have you learned?
  • What was the most positive impact of the project?
  • How was the funding spent within the project?
  • How would you like to expand or improve your services if further funding became available?

As the presentations progressed, the students recorded their comments, criticisms, thoughts, observations and questions about each project. Their rigorous, thoughtful feedback will form part of the ongoing evaluation of the community projects they helped to commission, and will directly inform our Phase 3 bid.

It was very clear during the day that HeadStart is not one story; it's a tapestry of interweaving stories in our communities, improving the life chances of young people. Projects had different aims, and targeted different groups of young people or their families, but were united by a passion to make things better for young people in our city.

To give you a flavour of each of the projects that were presented back to The Dragons, here is a brief outline of each presentation.

Girls Can Do - Changing Lives

'Girls Can Do', a project from Changing Lives, works with young girls who have been through traumatic experiences in their lives. The girls participated in a range of counselling and practical activities, including 1-to-1 consultations, group discussions, art activities, visits, role-playing and drama. They were supported in engaging with issues that they had identified anonymously as being highly relevant to them, including abusive relationships, eSafety issues, bullying, and family breakdown.

Parenting doesn’t come with a manual

Project leader Heidi was joined in her presentation by Katelin, one of the girls involved in the project. Katelin confidently shared experiences and artwork from the project.

High Five Parental Engagement - Re-Entry

Fran from Re-Entry shared details of their wonderful Parental Engagement project. Re-Entry works with young people who, for a range of reasons, are not in full-time schooling. Their project worked with parents to build confidence and to support one another. Many parents of young people at Re-Entry can feel isolated from support networks, and the project succeeded in bringing them together as they struggled to help their children back into schooling, and to improve relationships at home.

Art Break Festival - EYES

Darren from EYES shared the success of Art Break festival. Young people participated in dance, drama, and film-making workshops, before sharing their performances and media work in a one-day arts festival in the city centre in early September. This had a dramatic effect on the self-confidence and self-worth of many of the young people involved.

Parents have contacted us through social networks to say “You’ve had such a positive effect on my child”

Darren shared how parents had contacted EYES through social media to describe the really positive impact that the project had on their children.

The quietest young person in the room became the noisiest person.

Base Satellite - Base 25

Our HeadStarters aren’t just ‘engaged’ they are in the driving seat! Challenging the providers they funded as our ‘Dragons’
— Kevin Pace

Jason and Brian from Base 25 shared their Base Satellite project. Base 25 is a youth support facility in Wolverhampton City Centre, but with the Base Satellite project, this transformed into a drop-in support service for schools.

Young people visited Base Satellite drop-ins before the start of school days to share their personal stories and experiences in non-judgemental discussion sessions. Over 300 young people had engaged though individual sessions, and over 250 in additional transition workshops around resilience.

Creative Parents Support Group - Improving Futures

Mandy Smith from Improving Futures gave details of their Creative Parents Support Group project, which worked with families to support creative, shared play, building more positive relationships between parents and children. Interestingly, she explained how the project had changed dramatically early on.

Parents needed “permission to play”. Shared play is so powerful.

The original proposal had been to work solely with parents, but Improving Futures, reacting to feedback, brought whole families into the process. Mandy shared the positive feedback they had received from children and their parents, including examples of long-term transformation in family relationships.

Making it Better - LGBT Youth Group by X2Y

Ruth, from X2Y gave us details about their work supporting LGBT youngsters, their peers, and schools. They supported young people who are lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender, and those with uncertainties about their sexuality or sexual feelings. Ruth also shared their progress in training key staff in schools to understand issues of coming out, discrimination, and homophobic bullying

There are still over 70 countries in world where homosexuality is illegal. Many of these still have the death penalty in place.

X2Y negotiated partnerships with schools to proactively integrate LGBT awareness and acceptance into their curriculum and everyday practice. The project is still ongoing now; a new phase of work in schools has just begun. 

HeadStartFM_2015-Nov-24 12.jpg

A Place to Be Me - The Gazebo Theatre

Tonya from The Gazebo Theatre told us, in her own delightfully unique and enthusiastic style, about 'A Place To Be Me', a community grass roots project which gave young people a place to engage in a range of creative activities: drama, singing, acting, music and dance.

I am me and when I am at ‘A Place To Be Me’ I am more me

Tonya shared a great film of interviews with young people from the project: "I just feel happy here. When I'm me, I can feel how I want to feel. When I'm at the project, I am more me".

Young people were also encouraged to engage beyond the project; for example by contributing to a cookbook, or working to support Bilston in Bloom.

You need to do so much work to reach the hardest to reach.

The Superhero Within - The Gazebo Theatre

"The Superhero Within" is a play, scripted and performed in 22 schools and other community organisations, which explores issues of resilience ('bounce-back-ability'), self confidence, and peer relationships in an amusing, engaging way.

Pamela from Gazebo shared footage of the play, and information on the positive impact and feedback from those that had enjoyed performances.

Our community groups have spoken. HeadStart matters. HeadStart is changing lives. The voluntary sector are at the heart of our current work, and our future plans.

HeadStart Pilot Project Focus: Kicsters

(This is the third of a series of articles in which I speak to key individuals working in the HeadStart pilot projects that are underway around Wolverhampton. The aim of the articles is to tell their stories of how HeadStart funding, and the hardwork and inspiration of teams of professionals, are starting to transform the lives of children and young people, and of their parents and carers. It would be great to receive your comments on the article, or ideas for other types of content on Please use the comment form at the bottom of the article)

"Kicsters is an aspiration for the young people we work with", says Rob Smith, "They want to become Kicsters".

I am meeting with Rob,  the head of the Kicsters project, and his colleague Ben Williams, in the HeadStart offices on Shaw Road. They have arrived prepared, with images, information, and testimonials ready to share. I'm not surprised; I've been following the Kicsters project through their website at, and some fantastic work has been shared there throughout the summer.

The project is rooted in the idea that  work with young people needs to be community based. "We need to go to where the issues are, not wait for the issues to come to us. Hence our idea for a pop-up Youth Club". Rob, Ben, and their team take their expertise and equipment out into the community. "That, after all, is where the real demand is", observes Ben. "If youth work is soley based at a central location, many young people will struggle to access the support and services available".

About the project

The Kicsters Team, including Ben (left) and Rob (centre)

Kicsters began with some initial work over Easter, but really kicked into gear over the summer, basing themselves in two locations in The Bushbury Hill Estate. The first was the local community centre. The second, "the information house", is a converted home with a training room, computer suite, breakout areas, and space for Kicsters' portable radio station. Both locations were available to local young people for three days each week throughout the summer holidays. Working with Ian Bee at the Bushbury Estate Management Board, Kicsters sought to engage with young people from families which had historically isolated themselves from other support services. Other local young people heard about the project through word-of-mouth.

The Digital Graffiti Wall

The Digital Graffiti Wall

I ask Rob how Kicsters sessions work. "We use technology to engage young people with issues of mental health and resilience, but also to provide avenues for self expression and positive change", he says. "For example, we use a 'digital graffiti wall' for students to share how they feel about themselves and their lives". The video wall provides a blank canvas for young people to share their thoughts and feelings through words, symbols or sketches. The images from the wall can be captured and saved, and are then used as the basis of later discussions and follow-up work. Rob gives an example of how this has worked in practice: "In one session, issues of bullying emerged. We followed this up in group and individual discussions, and created an anti-bullying 'pledge' with the young people. The young people committed themselves to this pledge. Finally, we used our portable studio to create a radio show about bullying".

This integration of radio into Kicsters is very important to Rob. His long-running KicFM community radio station has provided support, training and work experience for many unemployed young people over many years, building confidence, skills and a positive attitude that they can take out into the world of work. The Kicsters project now brings the philosophy of KicFM to younger, school-aged students.

Other Kicsters resources include the KicPod, a portable "diary room" which young people can use to share their thoughts, feelings and experiences. "We had the KicPod in a high school recently", Rob explains. "One girl used the pod to talk about her recent, highly traumatic experiences of bullying. By opening the avenue for her to disclose the experiences she had been through, we provided a catalyst for action in the school. Things have improved dramatically for that girl now". Rob believes there is an important lesson here for all professionals who work with young people. "90% of the time, young people just want you to listen to them", he says. "Every young person we work with has a story, but many issues are not picked up early enough by traditional support systems. There is a gap between mental health issues developing in young people and them meeting the criteria to access formal support. Kicsters, and HeadStart more generally, aim to work with young people before long-term, harmful, mental health issues become established".

We want to build a generation of young people who can share their successes with their peers, and support them in succeeding too
— Rob Smith, Kicsters

"The bottom line", observes Rob, "Is that if you don't want to deal with the issues young people are enduring, don't ask. If you're going to ask, if you're going to create opportunities for challenging, difficult, sometimes shocking, issues to emerge, you have to be able to react, to put young people in touch with the support and counselling they need".

Ben returns to the story of the girl who described her experiences of bullying to the camera in the KicPod. "What was amazing", he says, "Is that once issues had improved in school, we returned there and recorded interviews with both the girl, with the classmates who had bullied her, and with the Safeguarding Officer in school. We used the audio from these interviews to create an animated version of her story, sharing the perspectives of each of the young people and professionals involved. We have turned a very difficult situation into a valuable learning resource for all schools. The use of the KicPod led to meaningful change".

A Kicsters animation, based on interviews in the KicPod. exploring the effect of bullying from the perspectives of the victim, the bullies, and school staff.

In the holidays, I can’t usually get my daughter out of bed until well into the afternoon. When Kicsters was running, she was up and ready by 9am every morning
— A Kicsters Parent

The retention of young people with Kicsters through the summer was incredibly high. "One parent said to me that normally, in the holidays, she can't get my daughter out of bed until well into the afternoon. When Kicsters was running, she was up and ready by 9am every morning". Kicsters is returning to Bushbury over half-term, and will continue to run one night a week during term-time. Funding has also been secured from Comic Relief for work which explores the relationship between the generations, bringing in parents or retired residents to work alongside the young people. 

Rob's vision for Kicsters is very clear. "We want Kicsters to be a brand that young people aspire to, and respect. We want to give them a sense of ownership of the Kicsters name. Whether we're working in school, out of school, or are working alongside other organisations to influence policy and practice, we want to improve the lives of young people through positive actions. We want to build a generation of young people who can share their successes with their peers, and support them in succeeding too".

HeadStart pilot project focus: Girls Can Do

(This is the second of a series of articles in which I speak to key individuals working in the HeadStart pilot projects that are underway around Wolverhampton. The aim of the articles is to tell their stories of how HeadStart funding, and the hardwork and inspiration of teams of professionals, are starting to transform the lives of children and young people, and of their parents and carers. It would be great to receive your comments on the article, or ideas for other types of content on Please use the comment form at the bottom of the article)

Many young people in our communities - too many - endure life-changing events and trauma. Some suffer physical, psychological, or sexual abuse. Others live through the bereavement of a parent. Many have to cope with family breakdown, or bullying, or drug and alcohol issues in the home. Some are suddenly thrust into the role of being a carer for a sick parent.

For adults, these types of challenges are incredibly difficult to cope with. For young people, they can be unbearable, and can have huge implications for their confidence, self-esteem, behaviour, and ultimately, for their future working lives, relationships and mental health.

One of the truly special things about HeadStart is its ability to offer targeted support for specific groups of vulnerable young people. Girls Can Do, a project being run by Changing Lives, works with girls aged 10-14 from the Bilston area who have been through traumatic experiences in their lives.

Today, I am lucky enough to sit down with Heidi Pickrell, one of the project workers for Changing Lives, to discuss Girls Can Do, and the positive changes she is seeing in the girls who are working with her.

About the project

I feel like sunshine. Great and powerful.
— A girl taking part in the Girls Can Do project

The aims for the Girls Can Do project are very clear. "We aim to build confidence and self-esteem in the girls", Heidi says. "We want to build their resilience". Although originally intended to work with up to 8 girls, 15 were referred by schools and other local agencies. From the start, the project was designed to be very centred around the individual needs of the girls. "We began the project by sitting down for 1-to-1 sessions with each of them", Heidi explains, "The personal stories that emerged then motivated our selection of themes for later group support sessions. Structuring the project in this way meant that, in the group sessions, the girls had been directly affected by the issues that were being discussed”.

They are a wonderful set of girls. They all have very different needs, personalities, and personal histories. I’m going to miss them all

"We are very careful to discuss with the girls what is, and is not, appropriate to share in that group context", Heidi says. "In our first group session, we drew up a 'contract' with them about how the group sessions were going to work".

The group meet once a week. In the holidays, this was for a whole afternoon. In term-time, it is an after-school get together. The group discussions are surfacing issues for the girls. During a session on abusive behaviours, one girl realised that she had been manipulated into abusive situations in the past. "She got very angry", Heidi says, "Her eyes had been opened. She was referred into individual counselling, but her reaction during that group session was an important first step".

The Changing Lives website ( )

The Changing Lives website (

In some sessions, outside organisations are involved. “One of the girls suffers with a serious medical condition so we asked the The Red Cross to work with them on their first aid skills", Heidi says. "The girls also attended a theatre performance from Gazebo Theater about the use and misuse of social networking, in direct response to issues that one of the girls had described in her 1-to-1 consultation".

I ask Heidi how the project is progressing. "The girls completed a questionnaire half-way through the project", she smiles. "One girl said 'I feel like sunshine. Great and powerful'. I've also had feedback from parents and carers. One of the girls lives with her grandparents. Her grandmother sent an email saying 'Whatever you're doing, it's working. Thank you'. We know that we've started these girls on a journey to becoming happier, more resilient, and more confident. A girl who was frog-marched by her parents into the first session, now insists on attending every week. And new friendships are forming between the girls. Two of the girls. who didn’t know each other before the project, decided to walk together to their first day at secondary school".

Two of the girls, who didn’t know each other before the project, decided to walk together to their first day at secondary school

Heidi would love to develop the project further. "I'd like to be able to work with groups for longer", she says. "I'd like to be able to expand it out to other areas of the city. The people who are able to support these girls are out there. I want to be able to say "Come and join us". I'd love to develop the first cohort of girls into peer mentors to work with us. The people who are best able to support young people who have been through difficult times or trauma, are other young people who have been through the same".

Following the final group session, the girls will sit down with sessional workers for more 1-to-1 sessions. For some girls, they will be referred to further counselling from there. Heidi finishes our conversation in reflective mood. "They are a wonderful set of girls. They all have very different needs, personalities, and personal histories. I'm going to miss them all so much once the project is over".

HeadStart pilot project focus: Creative Parents Support Group

(This is the first of a series of articles in which I speak to key individuals working in the HeadStart pilot projects that are underway around Wolverhampton. The aim of the articles is to tell their stories of how HeadStart funding, and the hardwork and inspiration of teams of professionals, are starting to transform the lives of children and young people, and of their parents and carers. It would be great to receive your comments on the article, or ideas for other types of content on Please use the comment form at the bottom of the article)

"Play is so powerful" asserts Mandy Smith. When I meet with her on a grey September morning, she says she is "a bit jaded" following a long trip to collect a relative from Manchester airport the previous day. If she is tired, it doesn't show. Mandy has a passionate belief in the power of shared play to bring children and their parents together, and communicates her belief enthusiastically, yet calmly, as we chat in the offices of Wolverhampton Voluntary Sector Council.

Improving Futures, for whom Mandy is a lead project manager, have been awarded pilot funding by Wolverhampton HeadStart to run a series of Creative Parents Support Groups. Two cohorts of parents have worked with staff and volunteers from Improving Futures through the late spring and summer. Mandy explains how the project has evolved. "At the start", she says, "the project was going to provide support groups for parents alone, giving them the chance to discuss and support one another through the challenges of parenthood. We quickly realised that this wasn't going to work, that it would be difficult for parents to attend without their children. We needed to be responsive to the needs of parents. So we changed it".

About the project

I believe in the healing properties of play.

The support groups are now family-focussed, with parents bringing their children along to sessions. Mandy lays down the objectives for the project. "We try to give parents coping mechanisms", she says. "We try to improve the family environment. When we survey the children arriving at our sessions, we typically find that they have high levels of anxiety. We want to do something about that, before anxiety turns into a damaging long-term mental health issue for them".

Mandy, as drawn by one of the children working with Improving Futures

Mandy, as drawn by one of the children working with Improving Futures

Working with parents and their children together, Mandy and her team encourage parents or carers and their children to engage as equals when playing together. "Sometimes, parents watch us playing with their children, and see the delight on their children's face as we engage in an art activity or an imaginative game", she observes. "They say 'Why can't I have that kind of relationship with my child?'. We just say 'You can'. Parents have a difficult time juggling their different roles: nurturing, providing, and disciplining. Playing with our children is often lost. Parents can get locked into a pattern of confrontation with their children. We want parents to make time to play with their children and to talk. We believe in praising children for positive behaviours and offering them a safe, supportive environment".

Parents say “Why can’t I have that kind of relationship with my child?”. We just say “You can”

Most sessions have been based in the Friends Meeting House in West Park, but a number of activities have been elsewhere; there have been trips to green spaces, adventure playgrounds, even a narrowboat journey. Mandy encourages parents to use the natural environment to boost the well-being of their children. I suggest to her that, as parents, we often view "days out" as being opportunities for children to play, and not as opportunities for us to play with our children. She agrees. "Besides", she says, "So many 'days out' are expensive. There are not enough low-cost or free opportunities in our communities". She is very clear, however, that much of the challenge can be met at home, and that imaginative play is not expensive. Mandy and her staff have worked alongside families in the sessions on role play activites, story-telling, and art and craft activities. "Parents are often frightened to engage with arts activities because they're insecure about their own abilities. We reassure them that it's not about the quality of the product, it's about the interactions with their children while playing".

Two more cohorts of families will engage with the Creative Parents support group through the autumn. Mandy would like similar activities to be available in every borough in city. "I believe in the healing properties of play", she says. "I've seen a small boy refusing to enter one of our sessions. I've seen him sit in the space between the outer and inner doors. We left the inner doors open and he watched the activities for a while. Then he came in. Soon he was asking ('demanding') his parents to come to every session".

Mandy finishes our conversation with one simple thought.

"We all need to find our inner child".