FEATURE: Castle Pool – first to open, last to close. The national success story of Castle Vale’s local swimming centre

Words & pics by Ed King

From 6am on Monday 27th July, Castle Pool will be back in business – making it the first of Birmingham’s swimming centres to reopen since the coronavirus crisis and national lockdown. But the four lane, 25m long pool has a bigger story to tell – a fantasy to an increasing number of local sports facilities across the country. Staying open.

Inaugurated by Queen Elizabeth II in November 1981, Castle Pool has been a health and leisure haven for people across the Castle Vale estate for nearly 40 years – used regularly by residents, schools, and swimming clubs.

Now adorned with social distancing signage, public sanitation points, and staff specially trained to manage the pool in accordance with guidelines from Public Heath England, the Farnborough Road facility is hoping for a quick and safe return to the “50,000 swims a year” they hosted before lockdown.

But life in the lanes at Castle Pool has not always been as confident or as certain. Back in 2012, Birmingham City Council had earmarked the pool for permanent closure – following a citywide evaluation of council run services that would see a swarm of facilities shut down for good.

However, the people of Castle Vale fought fearlessly to save Castle Pool – in a campaign started by local resident Amanda Cutler, that became the Castle Vale Pool Users Group.

My son swam here for years, he swam here since he was four years of age,” tells Amanda, who now works at Castle Pool as the Pool Support Officer.

He was doing lessons at the time, then all of a sudden someone said the pool may be closing. So, I started a petition – I went all round Castle Vale and got over 20,000 signatures. I didn’t know where to go with it but the Labour councillor at the time, Lynda Clinton, helped from there on.

There were a lot of pools closing down and this is the only facility on the Castle Vale estate for children. We were teaching children how to swim, for free. And we didn’t want that to stop.

My son has now become a swimming teacher and a lifeguard here. So, it’s created jobs too. But swimming is a life skill; everybody needs to know how to swim.”

Enlisting the further support of the Castle Vale based support agency Spitfire Services, the Castle Pool Community Partnership charity was formed in 2014 – allowing campaigners to get the checks, balances, and bank account in place for Birmingham City Council to agree an asset transfer. On 16th January that year, the responsibility of running Castle Pool was put directly into the hands of people who live and work on the Castle Vale estate.

When previously run by Birmingham City Council, Castle Pool was operating at a phenomenal loss of £250,000. But following the asset transfer in January 2014, Castle Pool has turned a profit every year since – managed by a team of local residents and community workers.

If you were to ask me, why did they (Birmingham City Council) sustain a £250,000 loss and you didn’t,” explains Judy Tullett – Community Services Coordinator at Castle Pool – part of the
Spitfire Services charity family of services.

“The reason is… the model is, making use of the pool from 6am to 10pm seven days a week. Or as much of it as you can. Having a mixture of (paid) staff and volunteers, and actually using your staff in the best way you can.

Most of the time, it wipes its face,” continues Judy, “it makes a small surplus. Partly because it’s a charity and we can attract funding. So, that helps. But it’s more about the way you manage and deliver your swimming service.

if you take a typical day, because that’s the best way to look at it, early morning you’ve got club swimmers who swim at 6am – the swimming clubs are all accredited and they look after themselves. There’s an agreement in place but there’s sufficient trust for them to open up, look after themselves, lifeguard it themselves, leave it as they find it.

Then the staff will come in at 8am and prepare the building for the schools – in our case we have local schools start at 8:30am. We also have between 20-30 lane swimmers several lunch times a week, then by 3:30pn the schools have finished. This gives us a chance to clean up.

Then at 4pm we start the swimming lessons – there’s a baby learn to swim group, we’ve just water aerobics – and at 6pm the clubs come back in. Every evening, except for Saturdays, the pool is then occupied by clubs. We shut at 9pm or 10pm.”

With ergonomics and community at its heart, Castle Pool began to flourish – encouraging constant use from not only the residents of Castle Vale, but from clubs and schools across the city. And with regular swimming instructors and lifeguards, as well as offering exclusive use to schools and swimming clubs, the safeguarding of young and vulnerable users at Castle Pool was much firmer.

We now have 26 schools using Castle Pool,” explains Judy. “Many of them drive past other swimming pools to come to us. Firstly, because we’re affordable. Secondly, because we’ve had the same lifeguards and swimming instructors since we opened – and they’re all local people.

Thirdly, they have the pool to themselves – so they’re not sharing the pool with the general public. They have the changing room to themselves, so in terms of safeguarding it’s amazing. They know that when they walk though those doors they’re the only ones there apart from staff and volunteers.”

Castle Pool is reversal of fortune that could make parts of Birmingham City Council blush – not to mention other administrations across the UK that are selling land, bricks, and mortar to in an effort to raise funds. And whether you blame apathy or strategy, when the questions of heritage and health get raised the public conversation can be increasingly drowned out.

But the success of Castle Pool is also a welcomed inspiration – with the team from Spitfire Services travelling across the city to assist the asset transfer of Moseley Road Swimming Baths in Balsall Heath, that had been under serious treat of closure for over a decade.

I worked with them (Moseley Road Swimming Baths) for about 15 months in the end,” explains Judy. “They invited me over because I have a passion for swimming and water – and because I’d previously done an asset transfer so I understood the language and I knew the people from the council who would be passing the asset over.

They had a group called Friends of Moseley Road Baths and had campaigned tirelessly for about 10 years. But they (Birmingham City Council) brought me over and employed me as Development Manger to help with the asset transfer.

What we negotiated was a licence, initially, that would allow Moseley Road Baths trustees to build up more expertise and get to know the building more. So, that never shut either.”

Back on the Castle Vale estate, the staff at Castle Pool are busy getting ready for the early morning reopening – running through their standard checks, alongside the new COVID-19 criteria that are now essential.

And whilst there is still a lot to do, people are buzzing with enthusiasm – excited to reopen the swimming centre they fought so had to save six years ago. The mix of dedication and love is as palpable as the hot air rising off the water.

Everybody works hard here, everyone does more than what they are supposed to,” adds Debs Henry, or ‘the amazing Deb’ as she is known by her colleagues – as she cleans, opens, and closes the entire site on her own.

It’s because we love it. It’s not like a job really, it’s something you look forward to. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I just keep everywhere clean and make sure everything is secure – but they’re all hard workers here.”

Although Castle Pool still has a few dark clouds looming on its horizon, requiring some much needed maintenance to the existing plant room – which encompasses the pool’s boiler and filter systems. Even with a firm pair of hands on the budget the work will take another £100,000, and that’s a lot of swimmers buying a lot of snacks from the vending machine.

But the locally run swimming centre, which has already fought its way back from the brink to become a national success story of community endeavour, is not backing down – with a fundraising strategy and programme of supportive events already in place.

If you were to ask me what is our No1 challenge is going forward,” tells Judy, “it’s not about recruiting volunteers or staff – it’s not about the use of the pool. It’s about making sure that our plant is fit for purpose.

“Our next big campaign, and we were part way through it before COVID-19, is developing a robust financial model to replace our boilers and filters

We’d got a plan in place; we’d had a boiler company come up and give us a very fair assessment of what we needed and what we needed to do… but it feels a bit like the Olympics, we’ve got to put that plan in place next year now – not this year.

And we want to do it all without closing, that’s important…. the actual fabric of the pool is good, but our main priority now is the plant room.”

Castle Pool is situated on Farnborough Road, Castle, Vale, Birmingham – and will be open from 6am on Monday 27th July. To find out more about Castle Pool, visit www.facebook.com/CastlePoolCommunityPartnership

To learn more about Spitfire Services, visit www.spitfireservices.org.uk

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FEATURE: Concerns and mixed emotions across Erdington more children go back to their classrooms

Words by & pics by Ed King

From 15th June, more Erdington children will be brought back into their classrooms – as Government guidelines encourage ‘face to face time’ with Years 10 and 12, whilst giving primary schools ‘greater flexibility to invite back more pupils.’

But as the school doors are increasingly creaked open ahead of the summer holiday, parents and carers across Erdington are still voicing their concerns – according to a constituency wide survey conducted by Erdington MP, Jack Dromey.

When asked, nearly two thirds of Erdington’s parents and carers had doubts about their children returning to the classroom – with over 50% stating: ‘I do not think children should be going back and I will not be sending my children back.’

Over half of these fears were rooted in educators being unable to implement adequate physical distancing, with the ever present worry that there would be ‘an outbreak of the virus in school.’

Approximately a third of parents and carers were worried about a ‘lack of PPE and safeguarding’ – with a similar concern expressed over there being no ‘testing available’ for young people returning to traditional education.

But a significant number of parents and carers identified concerns over mental health and wellbeing, with 56% stating ‘Children finding the social distancing measures upsetting / unsettling’ as a pertinent concern.

In response to questions about what would build confidence, around a quarter of parents and carers wanted clearer ‘information’ and ‘understanding’ from both Government and educators – with 56% stating ‘Headteachers, teachers and teaching unions being confident it’s safe’ would help allay their fears and concerns.

However, as voiced by much of the country, a significant fall in new cases reported or the introduction of a vaccine would be the best way to build public confidence – with 73% stating these as the most inspiring sign posts on the road map through the coronavirus crisis.

In response to the findings of the survey, Jack Dromey MP – who has represented Erdington in the houses of Parliament since 2010 – issued a letter to Education Secretary Gavin Williamson, addressing ‘the actions that are urgently needed to instil confidence in parents that schools are safe for their children.’

‘There can be no doubt about it,’ the letter continues, ‘we need to ensure a return to school as soon as possible. But crucially, this can only be done when it is safe. Children across the country are missing out on vital education, especially those who are due to take exams this year.’

Erdington Local also reached out to parents and carers across the constituency, asking what school life was like for the children who had returned to their classrooms.

My youngest son went back to nursery last Monday,” tells Sarah Hodgetts – whose son, Harry (4), attends Paget Primary School Nursery.

His school have put so many new procedures in place that I had originally said no but changed my mind and so glad I did. School is very safe and even at age four he understands and follows instruction. His mental health has been the best improvement; he’s a happy child again. 

We’ve gone from him worrying about everything to sleeping well again, wanting to play at home more and more settled in himself, definitely did the right thing allowing him to go back to school.”

Laura Crowley, whose child Jessica Rose (6) went back to Birches Green Junior School on Monday 15th June, tells “I have not long collected my daughter from school. She came out with a huge smile on her face and when asked if she’s has a good day she replied ‘yes’ –  she also said ‘social distancing was fun’ which reassured myself that teachers and staff are trying to make the whole situation a positive one for the children.”

Alongside a “staggered approach to children coming in and out of school using the one way system,” Jessica Rose is also “now in a class of seven rather than 32… called their ‘family bubble’.

All children have their own desks and packs containing any resources they will need for the day, to ensure they’re not touching/sharing equipment. They’re not allowed to take coats into school and are required to be in a clean uniform every day; PE will also be done in uniform to avoid PE bags been taken into school. 

The school communicated all changes very well, on the school website a video was uploaded showing these changes to allow us parents to show these to our children prior to sending them back to school.”

However, local mum Maria Rooney has been keeping her son Billy (5) at home since the lock down began – choosing to continue home schooling and not send him back to Abbey RC Primary Schoolas the medical advice seems to be at odds with Governmental direction. Press have warned there may be an imminent second wave of the virus so we chose to keep Billy at home for the moment.

We start ‘school” at 10am each morning,” continues Maria, “and try to do around 2.5 hours each day with snack breaks in between.

We also have a 4 year old who’s just left nursery so coordinating activities to suit both has been my biggest challenge. We’ve mostly created our own ideas for learning – bugs and habitats in the garden, outer space and our planet – along with the maths apps from school, craft making and art. 

The communications from the school have been adequate and they’d kept us updated as they’ve been updated. I believe the schools don’t know the government’s plans until the last minute – which has been much more frustrating for the school staffing community rather than the parents.”

But whilst parents and carers are making individual decisions about the safety and schooling of their children, one thing seemingly unites them – the need for clearer guidelines from Government and more support for educators, many of whom have been forced into making radical changes to their classrooms with little practical advice.

A clarion call for clarity reiterated by Jack Dromey MP, who states: “I am calling on the Education Secretary, and the Government, to work with the Labour Party to build a cross-party consensus around the return to school that would give parents the confidence that sending their children back is safe. 

We need to end the chaos and confusion and build a unity of approach around the return to school for the good of the nation.” 

For the latest news and developments from the Department for Education, visit www.gov.uk/government/organisations/department-for-education

For more from Jack Dromey MP, visit www.jackdromey.org

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NEWS: Erdington family embark on 5K sponsored walk to help save Twycross Zoo

Words & pics by Ed King

As zoos and safari parks across the country reopen from 15th June, when the Government eases the lockdown restrictions for selected businesses and tourist attractions, one Erdington family is busy fundraising to help save Twycross Zoo.

A special place,” for the Campion Garden residents, Ollie (9) and Rosie (5) Kinsella are embarking on a 5k sponsored walk around Pype Hayes Park – hoping to raise £500, dressed head to toe as their favourite animals, by Saturday 27th June.

To know more about Ollie and Rosie’s sponsored walk to help save Twycross Zoo, or to make a donation, visit www.totalgiving.co.uk/mypage/ollieandrosietosavethezoo

I went there for my first ever birthday,” tells Ollie – as he practices hiding like a Zebra, in his black and white camouflage costume, behind the sofa.

My favourite animals are penguins, because… they swim. And I like swimming under water. But there are no penguins at Twycross Zoo, so I’m a zebra… they’re my favourite because they’re stripy and they run fast. I can already run fast.”

Rosie has opted to be a flamingo, because she is an expert at standing on one leg and “flamingos are my favourite because they are pink.”

But the Erdington family of four are worried that the prolonged lockdown could put the UK’s zoos and safari parks at serious risk, seeing them as important places for children’s experience and education about the wider world.

Obviously, you can’t just go to South Africa and see the animals in the wild,” says Chantal Kinsella – Ollie and Rosie’s mum.

Some people are against zoos because the animals are not in their natural habitat. But you get to see things that you wouldn’t normally get to see every day – you get to see how they’re looked after, they do talk shows, they feed the sea lions… it’s a place of learning for the children.”

As thousands of businesses across the UK were forced to shut their doors from 23rd March, helping to stem the spread of COVID-19, zoos and safari parks have been closed to the public since early spring. But following guidelines from Public Health England, places that operate outdoors have begun to reopen as they are seen as lower risk.

I am very grateful to the zoo industry for their cooperation and forbearance,” explained Boris Johnson during the Government’s daily briefing on Wednesday 10th June, “and am happy to confirm that they too can reopen from Monday (15th June), provided visitor numbers are managed and safeguards put in place.

That includes keeping indoor areas such as reptile houses closed and facilitating social distancing.”

But as the light at the end of the economic tunnel begins to shine, there are still concerns for the welfare of such beloved places of interest.

People take it for granted that the zoos are always going to be there,” explains Craig Strawfrord, Ollie and Rosie’s dad – who once had a closer than usual encounter with a giraffe when he was stationed in Kenya, training for Afghanistan.

People might think just because they’re opening, they’re magically going to get the money back. But businesses can still be trading by slowly going under, because of the debt and interest rates. So, every little bit we can give them helps.”

Originally the zoos weren’t opening so they weren’t getting any income whatsoever,” adds Chantal, “they are opening now – but there’s still a shortfall because the zoos are not going to be able to have as many guests as they normally would have.”

Twycross Zoo first opened in 1963 and welcomes over half a million visitors to see the 500 animals in their care – including the ‘the largest collection of monkeys and apes in the Western World.’

The reported costs of running the wildlife sanctuary are over £500,000 per month.

But to Ollie and Rosie Kinsella it is a place of magic and learning, where they can experience wonders of the world a short distance from home. And if it helps to keep Twycross Zoo open for birthdays to come, walking 5km around Pype Hayes Park is a small price to pay.

They tell you facts,” explains Ollie – who is now trying to stand like a flamingo alongside his sister Rosie, “like how cheetahs can run fast… Did you know there’s a neon fish, that glows in the dark? In the sea. But they live very deep, so you’d need to dig a really big hole to see them.

I’d like to see a giraffe, like the one that walked over Daddy when he was in the war… But If I saw a tiger I’d run… or I’d fight back.

Ollie and Rosie will be making their 5k sponsored walk round Pype Hayes Park on Saturday 27th June – aiming to raise £500 to help save Twycross Zoo. For more information, or to make a donation, visit www.totalgiving.co.uk/mypage/ollieandrosietosavethezoo

To find out more about Twycross Zoo, visit www.twycrosszoo.org

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