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Faith and prayer behind award-winning Norfolk school

The headteacher of an award-winning complex needs school in South Norfolk has revealed the faith and prayer that helped to win a ten-year battle to complete the  £14m state-of-the-art school. Sandie Shirley reports.

Karin Heap is head of Chapel Green School in Old Buckenham and in June it was named as the East of England’s “Project of the Year” at the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) Awards. 

“Despite the difficulties, I never doubted in my heart that it would happen,” says Karin, who will retire from her role as school leader next September when the new school reaches full capacity. 

The doors to Chapel Green School first opened in January 2018 with funding from Norfolk County Council and the support of a £3.8m (approx) government grant. The blueprint was forged with input from pupils, parents and staff to signify an empowering new era. It has made learning “irresistible” for the current 104 three to 19-year olds who have a variety of moderate, severe or profound physical and mental challenges, explains Karin. 

“It’s a place of development and investment for children, staff and parents. You sense peace here and God’s workings in the different situations as pupils’ lives are changed,” adds Karin who drew members of six local churches together to pray into the new school building before it opened.  

With approximately 3.5 hectares, it includes a hydrotherapy pool, sensory studio, outside cycle track and all-weather pitch, kitchen garden and animal paddock. There is also a café and life skills room to practice hospitality and domestic tasks.  One parent says she feels like “a lottery winner” in the way her son has flourished since joining the school a year ago.  
Karin took over the headship at the original Attleborough site – Chapel Road School – in 2001. Seven years later she was determined to help raise the bar for the children she knew and loved with more space and upgraded facilities. It came with a passionate drive to find a new site for a purpose-built multi-faceted school where children and young adults would continue to find challenge to grow and shine and where 50 more youngsters with complex needs could join the school roll. 

With other campaigners, she embarked on an ardent journey of false starts and setbacks. But she forged relations with the press to tell out the story; visited Downing Street and drew on the expertise around her while managing the day-to-day running of Chapel Road School.

The responsibility could have weighed heavy on her shoulders, but Karin’s Christian faith saw her through the challenges. “I would send my prayer requests to my church, Hope Community Church Wymondham, as they carried the burdens for me in prayer,” she said.

Those burdens were considerable. They included the loss of a proposed site near Wymondham College and probate delays when the owner, who gifted the land for the school, died before the legal transference. Meanwhile there was a disappointing Ofsted report that went against the grain for a school that previously and since has been termed “Good” and “Outstanding.”

“But I used the report to re-evaluate and change operations to become more systematic for a much larger school, and it helped us transition well when we moved site,” says Karin.

Throughout the journey she wanted the voices of the children to be heard and she took a CD with messages from her pupils to Prime Minister David Cameron.

“A few months later, although there were no government grant allocations in 2013 for schools in Cambridgeshire or Suffolk, our little school in Norfolk was awarded nearly £4 million.”   

Karin recalls moving into the new school in the first week of January 2018: “It was chaos with different workmen and stockpiles of equipment and 60 staff all moving in. We were due to open for the new term on January 15 and had invited children and parents to see the school for the first time on the Saturday before. The job was done on time – children and families were completely wowed, some were moved to tears – it was amazing.”

Afterwards, a prayer meeting with staff and representatives from six cross-denominational churches was held following permission from the school governors. “Every room, and its purpose was prayed for, before approximately 40 of us gathered at the heart of the school, the atrium, holding hands to invite the Holy Spirit to work as we brought this school before God for his blessing.”

Karin explains that prayer is ongoing and the rewards are many: “They include the joy of sharing laughter and banter with children and staff or communicating with children who have the highest needs and to see them relaxed and empowered to  communicate with me,” says Karin. “There’s more joy when I have a moment to play with them and come down the slide with them – eight at a time!”

And there are many other special, joyous moments – the first ‘prom’ for school summer leavers and an organised school sleepover under canvas when youngsters spent their first night away from home.

Satisfaction also comes from empowering and developing others: “When a mum wants to return to work after raising a young family, she may arrive as a lunchtime supervisor. Over the years she is built-up here and may undertake national vocational qualifications as she grows in her confidence and requires skills that eventually may lead to full-time employment at our school.”

Karin’s leadership comes with a Biblical perspective: “It is built on the model of the early church and what Jesus says. Working together with the different gifts and strengths in the ‘Body of Christ', with love, grace and care, straight talking and fairness – it works and it enables us to make a difference.” 

Karin became a Christian at 12. Before leaving school, she knew she wanted to be a preacher or teacher with special needs children. “I worked and lived in children’s homes in Switzerland and England and it became my mission even before university.”

She was deputy head at two schools for children with special needs in Cumbria before moving to Norfolk. Says Karin: “I was the main breadwinner, and very happy with my role as deputy head. When my third child was born 20 years ago, I wanted to spend more time at home, but working part-time as a deputy head brought all sorts of challenges but these ultimately led me to finding a job as a headteacher in Attleborough.

“Looking back, it is clear to see how God has directed and guided my steps; his grace is full of abundance and he uses every challenge to turn it into something positive. It’s a testimony of his unfailing love to us as individuals and his care for the most vulnerable, children with complex needs, in our society.”

Pictured above, Karin Heap, head teacher of Chapel Green School in Old Buckenham.

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