Seats to Sacks is an innovative project from Community Rail Lancashire, striving to reduce social isolation whilst turning railway moquette into story sacks for primary school children.

 

Concepts and Aims

Network Rail’s Stay Safe with Thomas book is proving popular with children. Community Rail Lancashire’s Education Development Officer Karen Bennett thought it could be used in a more creative way – by forming part of a story sack.

A story sack is a large cloth bag containing a quality children’s picture book with supporting materials to stimulate reading activities. To bring the book to life, soft toys of the main characters, artefacts relating to items in the story, a non-fiction element relating to the fiction theme and perhaps a game based on the book are included. A guide and prompt suggest ways of developing listening, reading and writing skills using the contents of the story sack. They enable parents to contribute in a major way to their children’s literacy and provide a valuable resource to teachers. Many primary schools have a library of story sacks which they loan to families to engage with at home.

Research shows that when parents and carers take an active role in their children’s education it can transform their chances of success at school and beyond and with one in three children in the Bradford region leaving primary school unable to read well (National Literacy Trust). It seemed like a good idea to aim to support literacy development whilst learning about rail safety in the Yorkshire area and beyond.

 

What happened

Initially, it was thought that upcycling old moquette from refurbished trains would be great to use for the sacks.  Jenny Dempsey, Fleet Refurbishment Manager at Northern donated a large bag to the project. However, after trying to wash the material several times, the prototype that was made still looked quite dirty and worn. It was then decided it would be better to use new material. Diamond Seating kindly donated a roll of flat cloth that is being used in the refurbishment programme.

Keen to engage those who are vulnerable with the railway, Karen looked for a group who would benefit from making the sacks. The Muslim Women in Prison project supports those who are now living back in their communities, but are often ostracised, vulnerable and with low self-esteem often resulting in anxiety and self-isolation. With expert sewing guidance from Shazia Awan, a learning support assistant, the group worked tirelessly on Saturday mornings to make the sacks and fill them with flags, whistles, books, toy trains, a high visibility jacket and of course the books – kindly donated by Network Rail.

As well as attending sewing sessions at the Khidmat Centre in Bradford, the group also went on some rail journeys with their families to improve their railway confidence.  The first trip saw the ladies go to York Railway Museum and the second was a visit to the Manchester Christmas Markets. Most of the group had not travelled on a train before, but after being shown how easy it is and a great way to go out with the family, most have said they would go again.

To celebrate the project, a launch event took place on October 31 2019 at Kala Sangam in Bradford.  The Lord Mayor of Bradford, Cllr Doreen Lee was in attendance. She praised the project and encouraged all involved to continue to share the success of it. During the launch, members of Community Rail Partnerships and Station Adoption groups in the north collected the sacks to use with their communities.

 

Results

For the women, making the sacks went beyond learning new sewing skills.  Friendships were formed and confidence grew, especially on the trips out on the railway. One mother who took her children out with the group said it was the first time she had left the house with her family for seven years.  Sofia Buncy, National Co-Ordinator for the Muslim Women in Prison project commented that “this project has been about pushing women who are very often invisible ‘on the radar’. It was about upskilling them to navigate themselves and their children into public life and do that confidently and with a sense of self-worth”.

The story sacks have also enabled other community rail partnerships to use the sacks to engage with their local schools.  Sacks have been handed out to Community Rail Cumbria, the Penistone Line Partnership, the Leeds Lancaster Morecambe CRP (The Bentham Line), Settle to Carlisle Railway, the Tyne Valley Line, The Bishop Line and the Esk Valley Line.  Also, some station friends’ groups who interact with schools (Mytholmroyd Station Partnership and Fitzwilliam Station friends) have also received the resource to use with children.  Some bags have gone to schools in Bradford where the MWIP’s children attend.  Finally, Community Rail Lancashire have kept some bags to use with children throughout the county.