Please note: this visit was carried out before the Covid-19 lockdown.
On a visit to the Dials Club on a Monday lunchtime, I found myself surrounded by a lively bunch of youngsters chatting and laughing. This is the Dials Club at Brighton, Hove & Sussex Sixth Form College (BHASVIC) which aims to provide vulnerable young people a friendly place to eat lunch and socialise. They can also take food home discretely.
Launched in partnership with FareShare in September 2019, the Dials Club has proved really popular, with anywhere up to 40 students present at any one time. The college’s large canteen can be quite intimidating for some students, and this provides a more relaxed environment.
Young people aged 16 to 18 from different social backgrounds can come together here. Some might feel socially isolated at BHASVIC, finding it hard to make friends. Some have special educational needs. Or they might be living in food poverty, with the club enabling them to have a meal in college at least once a week as well as being able to access the food bank.
The Dials Club derives its name from its location in the Seven Dials district of Brighton which incorporates a road junction of seven roads.
Tanya Banks, BHASVIC’s guidance manager, explains: “It reflects the idea that we all come from different places, but meet at a central point, and then go off in different directions again.”
The club is part of a wider project by BHASVIC’s student services team to give support and assistance to disadvantaged young people or those living in poverty. The team provides counselling and food, as well as tutoring and resources for studies like books, pens and printing credits.
Team member Zoe Martin, who is an ‘English for Speakers of Other Languages’ (ESOL) teacher, says: “Many of the students come through ESOL classes, which is 80% made up of asylum seekers and refugees. The club is really good for generating social interaction between students and helps them integrate into the college.”
Another team member Sue Rigby, who provides learning support, adds: “Students coming along are interested in meeting other people. Some who have been quite isolated have formed good relationships with others at the club, and now text each other. Also, every week we get two or three student who are well outside the ESOL cohort but want to meet people different to those in their lessons. Some come as they need to eat, and others to share experiences.”
Currently open on Mondays, the plan is to extend the club to more days. This will depend, however, on staffing capacity and food supplies. They hope also to start an evening grub club. But many of the students are young carers who have to get home, often travelling long distances.
“We are thinking about doing special evening events with some of the hot food we get from FareShare that we can’t put out at lunchtime. Also, we might move on to having a breakfast club during exam season,” says Tanya.
A major aspect of the club is the food bank. Currently, around 30 young people living in poverty take food away each week. They are feeding themselves, but sometimes also those at home. Some may be young carers and others who become homeless for a short time.
If they are in full-time education, they are ineligible for benefits so cannot access standard food banks or universal credit. Their means of finance are limited, particularly if they live independently.
The online self-referral form enables the students to access the food bank privately, helping break down the stigma of using a food bank. Often this is the primary point of contact for a young person to ask for help and present as homeless or living in food poverty.
The food bank is open every day, but is available by appointment so it can be accessed discretely. The students sign up and are allocated a time when they can collect food, including long life food and sanitary products.
Tanya explains how they have been working in partnership with the Hummingbird Club, which also provides shared cooked meals for refugees.
“We’ve been learning from their experience. They’ve found that it’s important to have an activity before the food so people don’t just eat and leave. And so you have that social aspect as well.”
“We are not means testing them. There is no social stigma around coming here just because you can’t afford food. We try to take that stigma away and welcome anyone who wants to meet new people and have a shared lunch with a bit of social activity.”
Sadly, the food bank is increasingly being used. Tanya says that many are quite surprised there is a need for a food bank at an academic college like BHSAVIC.
They also give surplus food to students to take away just before holidays to cover the times they don’t have access to the food bank. However, they can’t fully meet the growing demand for food during the holidays.
Students can come in for food, for example, if they are homeless or have been chucked out of home.
Suzie Reynolds, BHASVIC’s student services coordinator, says: “We can get them emergency hardship funding, or a regular bursary if they are going to stay out of their family home, and we get them food. Some of our students can go to Night Stop, (also supplied by FareShare) if they are thrown out of home. They can take some food from the food bank too if somebody is putting them up.”
Suzie says the problem is growing. “We are seeing more people living independently. When I started here seven years ago, it was very rare for someone to be put out of the family home; now we probably support anywhere between 10 and 20 who are not living at home. Also we have family mediators who work with the students to see if there’s any going back from the situation they’re in.”
“The numbers have risen probably because more parents are struggling and on universal credit. Out of a college of 3000 students we have about 50-60 on free college meals which doesn’t sound a lot, but they have to be in real poverty to be eligible. And we have seen a rise in young carers, so the family income has dropped and they are struggling to balance their studies with getting food and maybe just organising their daily life. So counselling and welfare is important too.”