'Deprived areas are rich in many ways', says Oasis Community Learning Group founder
OASIS Community Learning runs 19 schools in the UK and sponsors hundreds of education projects in impoverished communities in 10 different countries, including India and South Africa. The not-for-profit organisation is also behind two secondary schools in our area, Oasis Academy Immingham and Oasis Academy Wintringham, and now, primary school Oasis Academy Nunsthorpe. Its founder, the Reverend Steve Chalke, has been a government adviser, TV presenter, author, and made an MBE. He talked to education reporter James Dunn
QWhy did you set up the Oasis Community Learning Group?
A I didn't go to a good school. I went to a very poor secondary modern in South London.
From a young age, we were told that we would not benefit from academic exams.
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When I was 14 years old, I started going to a youth group in South London because a girl that I fancied went there. It was a Christian youth group but I didn't know that. To me, it was just the place that Mary Hooper went.
But one day I noticed that the story they told me about myself at the youth group was different to the one I was told at school.
The youth group said that I was made by God and was capable of anything and my school said I would never amount to much. I knew which one I liked better.
One day, I was walking home from youth group on a Friday night and as I went past Crystal Palace's football ground, I had a realisation. At 14 years old, I decided that I wanted to set up a hostel, a school and a hospital for people who were told that they didn't matter. These people deserved a good home, a good education and good healthcare and I wanted to do that.
QHow did you do it?
A I went to college to do my A-levels but I just couldn't make the jump. I hadn't even done an O-level before and all I had been taught is to learn things.
When I was asked to 'evaluate and contrast' in my history exam, I just did not have the skills.
At 18 years old, I moved to Ashford in Kent because I knew a church leader there who said I could set up a youth group there.
I got a job at a plated press works and used to sweep the floor and eventually got to drive a forklift truck and used the money to invest in the group. I did that for two years.
Aged 21, I went to study theology at Spurgeons College in London. After that, I got a job working with young people at a large church in Tonbridge in Kent but I still had the same ambition.
After four years, my boss told me I should do it and I could continue living in my house for free, although I would no longer get paid. In September 1985, I finally had the chance to follow my dream.
I decided that a hostel would make a much more realistic starting point than a school or a hospital. I got other people on board and we did a lot of fundraising which was hard work. Finally we brought a big house in Peckham and used it as a hostel for young people who had been abused, mistreated and were homeless. Everything grew from that first hostel.
QWhat influence does Christianity have on the schools under the Oasis banner?
A It was Christianity that originally influenced me to start the group. The ideas of raising aspirations, working together, being part of a community which are key to the success of Oasis schools are all thing that Christianity taught me – love your neighbour, for example. However, the influence is very indirect.
Not everyone is a Christian – we are all-inclusive and welcome people from other faiths and those without religion. It is our job to make people aware of the world around them, not shove Christianity down their throats.
Some people might not buy into the Christian side of things but I think what they do buy into is the behavioural side that the schools promotes for their communities and their children.
QDo you have children of your own?
A I married my beautiful wife Cornelia in 1980 and it was actually her that suggested calling the first house in Peckham Oasis.
We have four children, two girls and two boys, who are all grown up now. Both of my sons actually work for Oasis. My youngest son runs a community cafe in Waterloo, providing a place for people to come together and the chance to use necessary facilities.
My other son handles the social networking side of things for Oasis. I have no idea how many websites, Facebook and Twitter accounts we have but there's a lot and I'm glad he is taking care of them.
QDo you always work in deprived communities?
Primarily, yes. The problem is that nothing is really expected from these children. People talk about their deprived backgrounds and go on about problems such as drugs and violence and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. That is why at our school we never talk about deprived areas because they are rich in many ways, in their communities, and we focus on that."
QWhat is next for Oasis?
A We opened a school in Nunsthorpe and another in Manchester recently. However, we are also working abroad a lot at the moment.
We teach people how to set up their own schools in shanty towns in South Africa. We also operate in poor areas of India and many other countries. The schools there are nowhere near as sophisticated as the institutions we have here but they provide a very important basic function.