Be prepared for Big Society to do its best (Scout's honour)

17th September 2010 at 01:00

David Cameron's impassioned rhetoric as he launched his Big Society initiative in the summer asked people "in their everyday lives, in their homes, in their neighbourhoods, in their workplace... to help themselves and their own communities".

This has a strong Boy Scout feel: Baden Powell exhorted scouts to "be productive citizens, (give) happiness to other people ... ready in mind and body (to meet) with a strong heart whatever challenges might lie ahead".

So, in effect, the Big Idea in this brave new coalition world is for us all to lend a hand and be prepared.

It's not new, of course. Christian doctrine tells us that "it is more blessed to give than to receive" and this is widely accepted in many philosophies; true happiness comes from helping others. Indeed, neurological studies suggest a link between donating, the stimulation of the brain's mesolimbic system (the bit that responds when good stuff happens) and our production of feelgood chemicals like oxytocin. So, perhaps it's a no-brainer - it makes us feel good, it's good for society, a sizeable number of us do it already, what's not to like about the Big Society premise: that we should all be more actively socially engaged and take more responsibility for the communities in which we live?

Between April 2009 and September 2010, 40 per cent of British adults volunteered formally at least once, and 25 per cent of British adults are monthly volunteers. So around a quarter of us give up our time willingly and regularly to "serve" our community in some way. That seems like a solid statistic to me, and surely an encouraging basis for the Government call to arms. Why shouldn't more of us join in?

The challenge is not only ensuring that more people buy into this theory, but also, that we are all actually able to do it - that the education we give our children encourages this kind of altruistic, broad and service-orientated approach to development and life. Cameron argued that a Labour-led society over the last 13 years has turned "lively communities into dull, soulless clones of one another". As a teacher for the last 15 years and a deputy head for the last five, I have at times felt inclined to substitute the word "schools" for "communities" here.

No one can be unaware of the extraordinary pressure on pupils now to hit exam targets, to meet assessment objectives and to tick the coursework boxes in order to progress to the next level (where there are yet more targets and assessment objectives to satisfy). I have seen pupils working harder and harder, getting better and better grades, for fewer and fewer returns. The striking element of this country's approach to education over the last 10 years or so has been the narrowing of children's vision and aspirations, as constant examination squeezes out self-discovery, imaginative exploration beyond the curriculum and delight in learning for its own sake, not for the marks it can "deliver".

But perhaps there is hope here with a new government promoting a new approach. What a great opportunity for schools to take this Big Society philosophy and make it sing through their curricula; not in dry "let's all learn about how local authorities work" citizenship lessons, but through practical, hands-on, totally committed service which makes a real difference to the communities in which we live.

Like many other schools in both the independent and state sectors, we have embedded this kind of committed service into everyday life here at our school. We have been teaching well-being for five years, and at the heart of the well-being programme is an emphasis on service. In the near future, we will be launching the Wellington Leadership Institute. Its fundamental purpose will be to develop leaders who have the strength of character and necessary skills to make a difference in the world - learning to lead through service.

Our new Mind The Gap programme will form a key part of the institute. The idea is that every single one of its 1,000 pupils will develop a service portfolio from the moment they arrive in the school, culminating in a sustained and challenging "gap style" project - giving up at least four weeks of their summer between Year 12 and 13 to serving the community (either at home or abroad).

So, if we're really to create a Bigger Society, let's make service, and the challenges that come with it, absolutely inherent in the education we offer. Of course, the independent sector has more financial freedom, resources and flexibility to run projects like this, but if we are serious about generating the kind of social conscience and personal responsibility in children that the Big Society needs, we require all schools to buy into it. And perhaps that is where the proposed Big Society Bank (set up to fund Big Society initiatives) comes in.

Cameron claimed that this was his passion. It's one of the things that "fires (him) up in the morning". Well, I love teaching, and I love watching children flourish and learn. If the Big Society means that they can learn about themselves and the world by learning to serve in it, then we just might all of us have "done our best". Baden Powell would be proud.

Jane Lunnon is deputy head at Wellington College.

Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today