This interview with Carol Southern from Wyre Borough Council highlights their successful Holiday Activity and Food programme. We get into the finer details around how Wyre operates the clubs, builds important partnerships and utilises the reach to positively impact the children and families most in need of support.
The Holiday activity and food programme (HAF) is a national initiative across England funded by the Department for Education. What began as a pilot scheme in 2018 was rolled out further afield in 2021 after the government announced three years of funding. Local government use the funds to support the families most in need – those whose children qualify for benefits related free school meals and those classed as vulnerable. As suggested by the name, this support comes in the form of childcare, activities and food during school holidays.
We wanted to dig into the HAF programme further and explore on a granular level how exactly local government are implementing them and the impact they’re having, especially during the cost of living crisis. We narrowed in on a fantastic example at Wyre Borough Council (located on the coast of Lancashire) and chatted with Carol Southern, the council’s Leisure Healthy Lifestyle and Communities Manager for the last five years – and the lead behind Wyre’s successful HAF clubs.
With almost 30 years of experience working in local government under her belt – all in the remit of health, wellbeing, leisure and exercise – it’s no mystery why Carol was chosen to oversee the HAF clubs rollout across the borough. As part of setting up the clubs, Carol and her team work closely with Lancashire County Council (LCC), who allocate the HAF funding between the 12 district councils.
Carol comments, “I think it’s a good model. We’re best placed to develop the programme in Wyre and build on our relationships and local knowledge, but we still work together with the county and other districts through regular meetings and a charity called Streetgames.”
Carol is adamant that the local partnerships have been paramount in the success of the HAF clubs; they work closely with LCC, targeted youth services, schools, Fleetwood Town Community Trust, and the local leisure centres run by Fylde Coast YMCA, to name a few. “We always try to work with local people from Wyre. We use local venues and local food providers,” Carol explains, “We try to keep the pound in Wyre wherever possible or not too far away.” When asked by her own procurement officer if she wanted to use one national provider, Carol recalls how she was quick to respond with ‘no’, elaborating, “I wanted to use local providers because the impact on the community is bigger, so it has to be the right thing to do.”
To establish these critical partnerships with activity providers, Wyre Council use a few different methods, such as an expression of interest form and utilising their existing relationships with schools (teachers, pastoral staff etc.) and other targeted youth services to seek out first-hand recommendations. Carol shares an example of how the Council’s community safety team put her in touch with a local man in Fleetwood (a deprived town in Wyre) who runs his own boxing club. “He’s brilliant, exactly the kind of person we need to be investing in, and now he runs some clubs for us,” says Carol. At times, if they struggle to find the right provider in Wyre, Carol also seeks out advice from Lancashire’s other district councils to see if they have any recommendations or insights. Carol overviews, “For me, it’s all about the relationships that you have and really doing that development work to keep the partnerships strong.” Reflecting on when they began two years ago, Carol remarks that these partnerships really were an essential support system for their team, who had never run holiday camps before – let alone camps that needed to suit Wyre’s largely rural geography. “It’s really important we provide camps not just in the towns but across the whole area. We’re proud we’ve managed to do that,” shares Carol.
Evidently, they’ve picked up the ropes fast, with every year getting bigger and better. The summer 2023 intake marks their most successful holiday provision yet – demonstrating both a growing interest and need. In total, Wyre Council ran 19 holiday camps in the summer using 11 local providers and 21 local venues, such as community halls, schools, churches, and sports centres. Resulting in 6,082 places filled with 694 by secondary school children. Carol notes that this is a ‘good improvement on previous years’ as we both acknowledge the additional difficulty of engaging older children. “That’s why we work closely with the youth services,” explains Carol, “We did a lot more promotion at the secondary schools and even hosted events in the parks over the summer. There’s still work to be done, but we have all the right people around the table working together, and that’s key.”
The HAF programmes are expected to be run over the holiday periods: Christmas, Easter and summer, and there are national stipulations. For example, each child is allowed to attend up to 4 sessions during Christmas and Easter and 16 sessions over the summer. Activity providers are required to host for at least four hours, but Carol asks providers in Wyre to operate for as long as possible to help the parents who need the childcare, especially to work. Another part of the criteria is providing one hour of physical activity and a nutritious meal. At Wyre, they work with a local healthy eating charity called Healthy Heads to ensure this is possible. “They help get the children to try different foods, like smoothies and pancakes with fruit, to encourage a positive experience,” highlights Carol.
Although physical activity is an important part of the HAF club’s remit, Carol believes it’s important not to forget other types of enriching activities that can help improve inclusivity and cater to different preferences. She cites how they commissioned 10 local artists to run health and wellbeing arts and crafts sessions, which gained lots of positive feedback – including from the artists themselves, who valued the investment in their businesses. Other examples for next year include a provider who runs an outdoor forest school and another who teaches sign language. She remarks, “It’s just something a bit different for the children to experience.” Due to Wyre’s coastal location, Carol is also very keen to bring in some water safety provisions. “Of course, all of this needs to be made really interactive and fun, but these clubs can also be important for teaching children about things like the dangers of water.” In terms of popularity, Carol mentions that the more generic holiday clubs tend to remain on top, “Places like the leisure centres because everyone knows they’ve got bouncy castles, a swimming pool or splash pads.” But she says don’t underestimate the up-and-coming niches like the coding club, “That’s getting more popular. It just takes time and willingness to try something a bit different.”
With the change in seasons comes some necessary changes to the provisions. For Wyre, this includes a guarantee of hot meals and some more festive activities, Carol says, “Over Christmas, we have a company that tours around the clubs and provide pantomimes for the children – that goes down really well, as you can imagine!” In addition, they have offered food boxes for struggling families and presents for the children, “This year, we’re looking at gifting some hats and gloves, maybe some Oodies, just to keep them warm.”
So far, Wyre’s HAF clubs have reached 1,168 children on benefit-related school meals this year, but, as Carol flags, this is only one-third of the qualifying children in the area. “Sadly, I don’t think we’ll ever reach all of them or could afford to reach everyone, especially with the number of children on free school meals rising. But it just makes the provisions all the more important,” emphasises Carol. At the Council, they use a code system for bookings, which she recommends. The schools provide a list of the children on free school meals, and the Council then issues codes that are given directly to those families to use. “We also ask the schools to flag other children who are not on free school meals, but they think would benefit from the HAF camps. I know every child would benefit from going to our HAF clubs, and a lot of camps do offer paid-for places as well, which is important,” explains Carol. The Wyre HAF clubs are also used as a way to signpost and share information to those vulnerable families about local food banks, warm hubs and other charities and organisations that can help.
As a result of all these thoughtful provisions, Wyre’s HAF clubs often get really positive feedback from the community. “People say, ‘What would we do without the holiday clubs!’ and comments about how the children have enjoyed them; how they’ve learned new skills, made new friends and just benefited from the range of activities on offer.” Carol shares proudly, “That makes it all worthwhile. When you go and visit and see everybody’s got a smile on their face and they’re having fun, that’s what it’s all about.” Wyre is not alone, evidence up and down the country shows that these HAF clubs do make a real difference to disadvantaged families, which only elevates concerns when thinking about the future. The current funding commitment lasts until March 2025, and Carol, just like others who have seen first-hand the positive impact of these programmes, is hoping there will be more to follow.
“If the Department for Education choose not to fund them going forward, then I do hope we can continue as a council. Obviously, resources are tight, and we’d have to put a business case together to assess whether it’s possible and at what capacity,” reflects Carol.
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