Mums from the Whitley area of Reading have been taking part in an initiative aimed at improving their self-confidence and prospects.
Professor Carol Fuller and Dr Maria Danos, from the University of Reading’s Institute of Education, lead the Marvellous Mums programme. The group’s mantra of “better together than alone” has already had profound effects on many of its participants.
The initiative, led by Reading and the Whitley Community Development Association (WCDA), and supported by HomeStart Reading and Workday, was launched in 2018. It aims to tackle social inequality by empowering women to define their own paths in life. Course facilitator, Professor Fuller, hails from Whitley herself and came to the University of Reading in her thirties to study as a mature student. She wants to show the mums from her community that opportunities can exist for them too by helping them to make connections, raise their aspirations and develop new skills.
The 11-week programme was developed in collaboration with the local community, taking on board feedback gathered from a focus group of local women. The course, which typically includes around 15 mums begins in the Whitley Community Cafe with childcare provided on site by trained nursery staff. Each session focuses on a practical skill such as assertiveness versus aggression; body language and self-presentation; rewiring limiting beliefs; goal setting and interview technique. As the course progresses, the mums get the chance to attend sessions on campus and at The Workday Foundation.
Professor Fuller describes Marvellous Mums as an “ongoing community of support.”
“We don’t have all the answers, but we facilitate, and we learn from the mums as much as the mums learn from us. They have the skills, the want and the passion to change their lives – they just need some help navigating their way.”
Building communities, raising aspirations
Shamyla Amjad has used the confidence gained from the course to complete a Prince’s Trust Enterprise Programme and has started her own jewellery business. She said: “I’m very excited and am looking forward to a brighter future for me and my family. I’ve enjoyed attending the Marvellous Mums Unite programme. It’s been so inspiring and fabulous to attend.”
One of the most positive outcomes of the course is the feeling of being part of an ongoing, supportive community. Mum, Sharleen, describes how connected she feels to the other mums: “We have a WhatsApp group where we swap advice, support and encouragement and offer practical help to each other. By speaking to other local mums about their own stories, you realise you are not alone, and that other people have experienced similar problems and situations that you have.”
With Professor Fuller and Dr Danos’ help, Sharleen and her fellow mums continue to arrange bingo nights, quiz nights and family days out long after the course has ended. Before doing Marvellous Mums, many of them would never have set foot on the campus, perhaps even assuming it was off limits, but now they come and enjoy the beautiful green spaces with their children.
The course’s power to open up the University to the local community is a key element of the programme. A huge advocate of Marvellous Mums, Vice-Chancellor Professor Robert Van de Noort, said:
“University is for everyone and should be accessible by everyone. We are determined to make Reading a University for Reading as well.”
As well as raising their own aspirations, the mums also report the added benefit to their children of seeing their mum going to university for the course. It helps to demystify further education and encourages a new generation to aspire to it themselves.
The final session of the course involves the inspiring mums receiving their certificates of completion from the Vice-Chancellor on campus, followed by a lunch. Taking place in the school holidays, they can bring family and friends and have their photograph taken with Professor Robert Van de Noort. Professor Fuller says: “It’s like a mini graduation. We do this because we want to show the mums how much they matter and how proud we are to support them.”
New confidence, new opportunities
For mum-of-three, Sharleen, Marvellous Mums has been the catalyst for turning her life around. After a very difficult upbringing and a long battle with mental health issues, Sharleen now has a cleaning job and is looking for ways she can give back to the community. She has been invited to lead a session on the next Marvellous Mums course, something that would have seemed inconceivable to her a few years ago. Her ambitions are now limitless, with aspirations to do motivational speaking and mentor young people in schools.
“Although so many of my own experiences have been difficult ones, I have learnt so much, including how to get out of bad situations and turn your life around.
“I have lived through a lot and come out the other side and I want to use this experience to help others. I feel like I can look my daughter in the eye now and feel proud of who I am. For a long time I struggled to do that, even with my own children.”
Sharleen is not the only success story from Marvellous Mums, far from it. Other mums have applied to college, some have left destructive relationships or been referred to Alana House and many have gone into work. One mum has got a job in a travel agency, one is selling her own art and another is training to be a nursery nurse.
Professor Fuller says: “The effectiveness of the course was demonstrated by the fact we had a zero drop-out rate, and some of the mums have expressed an interest in returning as mentors to help future recruits.” Sharleen reiterated the level of enthusiasm and engagement among the mums recalling that no-one on her course missed a single session.
Giving a voice to disadvantaged mums is the aim of Marvellous Mums, so the last word goes to another mum who graduated from the course: “I came to the programme as I was very devastated and stressed. I needed someone to talk to, build my confidence, meet new people and not to be isolated by myself. Now, I can proudly say I gained self-confidence, feel loved by Marvellous Mums, learned so many things from wonderful ladies like Carol and Maria.
“They inspired me a lot. I used to think that I couldn’t achieve my goals, but after attending the 10-week course I know that I can achieve anything that I want to achieve. I need to have the confidence and be strong.”
With Marvellous Mums receiving funding for another two years, more local women are set to benefit from the course and will continue to inspire us here at Reading.