By Alistair Rooms
I have recently been witness to the excellent work of a Catholic Parish in Forest Gate, disorganizing and re-organising. This deep organising work built a strong internal structure which has allowed us to convince London City Airport to change their policy on low-wages. Here are the lessons I learned.
To disorganise and re-organise a parish you need two key things:
1. Leaders willing to take risks with the vision for how things could be different.
2. Leaders who build strong relationships with lay leaders with a focus on developing them into positions of responsibility.
St Antony’s of Padua RC Church:
Father John Jesus’s church based in the Catholic Parish of Forest Gate welcomes 1,000 people through the doors each weekend. Over 50 languages are spoken (at least). There’s a high churn of people moving in and out of the parish because they are newly arrived in the UK or must move on due to bad housing conditions. Father John Jesus used to describe his Parish as like ‘Heathrow without the airplanes’.
Recently Father John used some of his 6-day Community Organising training to build strong relationships with key people in the parish through 1-1 relational meetings. He met people from across the parish to find out about them, their interests and reflected on their potential. With the support of the Bishop and the school next door the church launched 20 Cell Groups who have transformed the church. This felt like a risk to some as change in a parish always does. The church is organized with lay leadership supporting the parish, shaping mass, supporting the homeless and deepening their faith.
Through a listening campaign, these leaders found the issue of low wages to be a problem in the Parish, with almost 50% of people earning less than what it costs to raise a family in London. This research and these stories were put in front of the City Airport to move them to become a Living Wage Employer and raise the wages of 100 workers.
St Antony’s RC Primary School:
A minutes’ walk from the St Antony’s of Padua RC Church lies the small but mighty, St Antony’s RC Primary School. They have worked closely together over the years, but now the success of the two are tied up together and according to the Headteacher Mrs Moore, they are now one and the same. She is steward of the Gospel at the Church, and along with many of the teachers, join the Church for mass before school.
The primary school used to struggle. Parents talk about the fact teachers didn’t care about standards within the school. There were 4 afterschool clubs, standards were low as were results and Ofsted rated the school ‘Satisfactory’.
Now the school are rated in the top 6 in the country according to the Times, and top 2% according to the Department of Education. So how did they turn this around? Disorganizing and reorganizing.
Mrs Moore once said to me that she wanted the young people in her school to ‘grow up with the same ambitions the children in Chelsea’. She believes deeply in the potential of the children and what they can achieve and has shared this vision across the school, parish and is now sharing it across the city.
Mrs Moore started off by meeting all the staff who had the drive to turn things around. She then took a risk and removed some of the staff who weren’t pulling their weight and who didn’t share her ambitions for the students. She met all her new and driven teachers one to one, to find out what they cared about, recognize their gifts and ask them to start after-school clubs based on their interests, (baking, cycling etc). Now there are over 50 after school clubs. The school provide a vital service to parents who often work 2-3 jobs at unsocial hours. Mrs Moore gave positions of responsibility to several teachers after building strong relationships of trust with them.
Mrs Moore described her leadership style as: “I believe that as a leader one of my main aims is to equip my leadership team to function as well as they do with me-without me. I am therefore committed to the practice of building leadership capacity through an on-going coaching and mentoring approach which diminishes stagnation and encourages innovation, collaboration and high levels of participation.” The school growing from strength to strength reflects this development.
The school is further supporting Church cell group formation by hosting meetings in the evening and having teachers them. These cell groups are, in turn, transforming and growing the church.
This was all made possible by the vision of Mrs Moore, Father John Jesus. They were willing to take risks and build strong relationships of trust with lay leaders, developing them into roles of responsibility.
This disorganizing and reorganizing meant the school could act on the interests of their members and challenge low wages in the borough to convince London City Airport to become a Living Wage Employer.
 It’s worth noting that in 2015, according to End Child Poverty, 35% of children who lived in Forest gate live in child poverty. https://www.aston-mansfield.org.uk/wp-content/themes/aston_mansfield/uploads/Newham_Statistics_2017.pdf