'Forcing pupils to "volunteer" is self-defeating'

Young people should choose to volunteer or join sports teams – making it compulsory won’t work, says Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Teenagers need to decide for themselves whether they want to do volunteering, says Bernard Trafford

Really, you might begin to despair of kids. This snowflake generation folds up when things get tough; spends its life swapping inanities on social media; gets upset when anyone says something nasty; won’t wear school uniform properly (the customary annual headlines about uniform-related school exclusions are already proliferating); and then bleats about mental illness when it should man up.

No wonder, then, that opinion-formers seek to tackle this problem (forgive my ironic identification of it). The summer holidays gave rise to a plethora of advice for keeping children busy. Rather than slobbing around for six weeks, they were urged to be up and doing, and getting holiday jobs. 

Hopefully, back in school now, they are being kept busy. Not busy enough though, according to Tory peer Baroness Brady of Knightsbridge. Karren Brady, a judge on BBC One’s The Apprentice, and by definition a successful entrepreneur, sets out a three-point plan, according to The Sunday Times, dedicated to getting youngsters off their backsides and doing something useful.

She reckons that by the age of 16 all children should have completed at least 25 hours of volunteering, had a part-time job and been a member of a sports team.

In itself, that’s not a bad outline. Youngsters should, indeed, have an opportunity to give freely of their own energies and talents to help others – and arguably to learn that, whatever their problems, there are others less well off. As for part-time jobs, earning is good experience and rewarding, too.

Give teenagers the choice

Sport is important: not for the acquisition of ball skills (which have notably eluded me for 60-plus years), but because of what’s learned from being in a team: reliance, trust, interdependence, cooperation and, at crunch-time, stepping up to take responsibility. Sport in childhood provides great practice for adult life.

Baroness Brady noted that only one in six young people are involved with the good work of the National Citizenship Service (NCS). Her comments rattled the cage of that organisation’s National Youth Board, which responded: “Alongside nearly half a million of our peers, we have used our school holidays to build vital skills for work and life, take on new challenges and make friendships across social divides. Through NCS, we have given nearly 12m hours in social action and experienced first-hand how we can create positive change.”

They’re right: as is Karren Brady – up to a point. But I confess I detest any insistence on prescribed solutions to social ills. Good schools and active communities between them offer all those opportunities described above: service/volunteering, sport and (an unfortunate and perhaps revealing omission by the Baroness) the creative and performing arts, including participation in choirs, orchestras, bands, plays and dance.

The trouble with Grand Plans is that they always recommend quotas. Twenty-five hours of service is mooted: but a serious sportsman/woman, with all the training that is required (in school or outside), may struggle. The Baroness (rightly) praises her children, who did part-time jobs and also volunteered: by contrast, my teenage daughters were so involved as both musicians and hockey players that we agreed part-time jobs were ruled out.

Besides, what about GCSEs and A levels? Let’s not forget exams: not to mention the pressure on young people (whether self-imposed, or driven by school or parental expectations) to achieve highly. The homework load threatens both volunteering and other commitment over the weekend.

My family example is as irrelevantly anecdotal as Baroness Brady’s: which is why we avoid dictating “what kids should do”.

We must indeed offer all those opportunities to young people: but, although teachers or parents may give them a nudge, we should stop trying to squeeze them into niches or moulds of our adult design. Let’s instead make it attractive, and offer experience in performing arts, sport and volunteering that is high-quality, worthwhile and challenging, not merely tokenistic. 

But then, please, leave it to kids to choose what they do, and how much. It’s their life, not ours.

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist and musician. He is a former headteacher of the Royal Grammar School, Newcastle, and past chair of HMC. He tweets @bernardtrafford

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Bernard Trafford

Bernard Trafford

Dr Bernard Trafford is a writer, educationalist, musician and former independent school headteacher

Find me on Twitter @bernardtrafford

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