In these days when experts talk about the importance of bringing the generations together, Downshall primary school in Essex has shown how it’s done, resulting in extraordinary benefits for both the children and the older people involved.
The children’s school progress almost doubled that of the national average. Nationally, over the year reception age children make six steps of progress, but at Downshill Primary School in Ilford they make 10.
The project is one of a growing number of intergenerational initiatives in the UK designed to bring benefits to both old and young, while helping to fill the gaps left by cuts to local community support services. Older adults experiencing isolation, depression and early dementia are referred by health teams to the project. They then come into school with volunteer support workers and take part in regular activities including music, reading and games with reception and year 4 children. The children’s progress is monitored to measure impact.
The biggest impact seen in developing relationships – an important measure among young children – with marked improvements in communication, language, reading and writing. Contrary to usual trends, boys make better progress than girls. “The project has gone from strength to strength,” said the headteacher, Ian Bennett. “The children have made such improvements across the board.”[i]
He said that the children’s needs are paramount, but participating adults benefit hugely from purposeful activity, enjoying helping others and socialising not only with the children but other older adults.
The project was set up two years ago by David Hinchcliffe, a consultant old age psychiatrist at North East London NIH Foundation Trust, to try to tackle the growing problem of loneliness and isolation. He said, “Local authorities have had their budgets slashed for a number of years. We are having to think creatively about how we can come together as a community and keep everybody engaged and active.”
Primary schools in neighbouring boroughs and other mental health trusts have also expressed interest in developing similar initiatives, and links being forged between care homes, nursery and primary schools across the UK. They have existing for many years in Pilgrim Friend Society housing and care homes. Our care home in Great Finborough, Suffolk has low tables and chairs for the younger children visiting residents with their parents. The residents enjoy watching the children put pieces of lego together or crayoning in their colour books, and the children love to go up to them and ask questions.
On one occasion a group of older people from our Extra Care housing in Yorkshire visited a local school and talked to the children about how they had lived when they were their age; the sort of meals they had and the games they played. The children couldn’t imagine life without iPads and television. "What did you do?" they asked.
The generations have different attributes that God’s life design intended to be a blessing for one another. Gerontologist and social activist, W H Thomas, comments that the human life cycle moves us from a state of being as a child, to doing as an adult, and to being-doing as a older person. Both young children and the elderly are non-judgemental and fully present, not caught up with worries for tomorrow, and the results that benefit both, such as Downshall’s Primary School’s, are a reflection of God’s wisdom.