Blog – Red Hen Project: Improving life chances in North Cambridge

By Susan Hart and Lesley Dee

Where would you find baked beans and washing powder in filing cabinets?

In the office of The Red Hen Project!

What is The Red Hen Project?

The Red Hen Project is a small local charity which, for over 20 years now, has been working with and supporting families to overcome barriers to learning and improve life chances for children in North Cambridge. The Project serves 5 local primary schools in the Arbury, Chesterton and Kings Hedges areas.

What does Red Hen do?

When there is concern about a child who is not thriving in school, the school makes a referral to Red Hen and a family worker contacts the parents to offer support. Participation is always voluntary. Family workers usually offer sustained 1:1 support for parents and children, in school but mainly at home,  in term time and during the holidays. They provide advice, support in accessing other services, and encourage parents to support one another through contacts made at weekly coffee mornings, on trips organised by the Red Hen Project and at their workshops and courses. At our Meet Up in April, we invited along members of the Project to talk to us about their work. 

Tackling inequality

 A long-term aim of the Project is to foster independence and build the capacity of the community to tackle the roots of social problems at the earliest opportunity. Sarah Crick, the Project Lead, explained that an important feature of the support that family workers provide is that it is tailored to the needs of individual families. When family workers receive a referral, for instance a child who is reluctant to attend school, they always take time to look for the reasons behind this, which may not be immediately apparent, and try to address those as part of their support strategy. Since many of the families referred to Red Hen are struggling to make ends meet, this can involve tackling socio-economic issues relating to housing, benefits and debts, as well as universal issues of isolation, relationship breakdown and domestic violence, alongside the school-based concerns. 

Growth of inequality

Their experience suggests that the difficulties families are facing have intensified in recent years, affecting in-work families as well as those where nobody is in work.  Awareness of this growing inequality has led to the Red Hen Project becoming part of the FareShare food distribution network, passing on food to the families most in need. As a result, Sarah told us, the filing cabinets in Red Hen’s small office are crammed full of baked beans and washing powder alongside their paperwork and files!

Conversations with the Project team

As part of our contribution to the Conversations group of The Cambridge Commons, we’ve also been learning about the work of the Red Hen Project from other members of the team. We attended their drop-in coffee mornings to meet and talk with families they work with, and have met with a senior family worker and a trustee to learn more. Sarah’s presentation echoed what we learned from our conversations with them.

The emotional impact

A senior family worker talked about the emotional strain that parents experience: ‘There’s a lot more poverty around, which leads to depression, anxiety and isolation.’ 

As a result, there is also more anger and distress amongst children: ‘If you haven’t got a uniform and everybody else has, and you’re in trouble for that, you’re going to be angry. And families are splitting so that you’re angry that you haven’t seen your dad or mum. Life is tricky for kids!’

Breaking the cycle of deprivation

The work of the Red Hen Project helps to break the cycle of deprivation: ‘A lot of our children have really minimal life experiences… Some, for example, have never been to the seaside, or to Thetford Forest.  And it’s generational as well because if that is those children’s lived experiences, it will become their children’s lived experience, unless we can change things!’

Relationships based on respect

The support provided by the Red Hen Project is welcomed by families, a former user told us, because the support is based on respect: ‘She’s not patronising, she’s not judgemental.’ Respectful support is not all one way: ‘If you don’t agree with (the advice), you are open to tell them why you don’t agree and you work together to make things better.’ Respectful support gives reassurance and helps to build confidence: ‘She said we all make mistakes when it comes to parenting because (children) don’t come with a book.’  

Family and community

It is important too to offer support for parents as well as for their child: ‘Sometimes you do need to work on yourself in order to help your child.’ The Red Hen Project has a strong presence in the community and the family workers are known and trusted: ‘The community helps the Red Hen and the Red Hen helps the community..’ [s1]

What can we do to help?

We were deeply moved and inspired by all that we heard about the work of Red Hen. At the Meet Up, the presentation by the Project team provoked much lively discussion, followed by a practical consideration of what we, at The Cambridge Commons, might all do to support their work and ensure that it continues. As well as ‘spreading the word’, the Red Hen Project needs volunteers to support their work in many different ways. These include, for example, regularly helping out during coffee mornings, or offering support for administrative tasks.  Funding for the Project is also urgently needed, and will become crucial when Lottery funding comes to an end in two years’ time.   As one former user said: ‘A lot of people round here rely on Red Hen… (but)… how long will Red Hen last for?’

To find out more and to offer support or a donation,


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