Doubt over value of volunteers

21st January 2000 at 00:00
A new study has given ammunition to critics of the Government's drive to recruit thousands of classroom helpers, writes David Budge.

THE army of adult volunteers who have been drafted into schools to provide extra help with reading may be making no difference, new research suggests.

The findings will be seized on by critics of the Government's plan to recruit another 20,000 classroom assistants by next year. Many teachers believe that assistants play an invaluable role in literacy hour activities but others argue that too much is being asked of support staff.

The 31 volunteers involved in the research study were deployed in the reception classes of three socially-disadvantaged primary schools in the north-east of England. They provided extra help for two half-days a week over a period of six months.

But University of Sunderland researchers who tested 100 infants at the end of the six months - and then again after three years - discovered that the pupils who had received special help had made no more progress overall in reading and spelling than their schoolmates.

This is not the first time that researchers have produced such findings but the outcome of the Time for Reading project is nevertheless surprising.

It was carefully constructed by the Sunderland academics to ensure that the mistakes of previous volunteer programmes were not repeated. Each volunteer received six hours' training and a tuition manual based on extensive research into early literacy development.

Professor Julian Elliott of the University of Sunderland admits that the findings surprised not only the school staff and volunteers but the researchers themselves.

"It is salutary to note that, at the end of the intervention period, all concerned considered the project to have proven highly successful," he said.

"Often it is such subjective impressions, based, to some extent, on a feel good factor that are used to validate the effectiveness of educational initiatives."

The Sunderland researchers note that concern about over-large classes has resulted in "a growing army of parents, nursery nurses, classroom auxiliaries, sixth-formers, community volunteers, and even, potentially, the long-term unemployed". They believe their findings will serve as a reminder that additional support staff must be introduced to classrooms very carefully.

The Time for Reading programme emphasised phonological awareness (awareness of sounds of individual letters) and story-telling. The volunteers, mostly mature women, tried to develop the children's letter knowledge and heighten their enjoyment of stories.

The schools that took part were able to provide two parallel reception classes that acted as experimental and control groups. In each experimental class the teacher had two volunteers working with children at al times except during assembly or practical sessions such as PE or singing. The control classes received no extra support.

In one school, the volunteers tutored children in groups but in the other two schools they tended to work with individual pupils. The setting for the tutorials also varied: in one school, volunteers worked alongside the class teacher, but in the other two, support was usually provided in "quiet areas" of the school.

Initially, a total of 140 four- and five-year-olds were involved in the project but 40 moved on to other schools during the following three years. "Although the wastage rate seems rather high, one should note the more itinerant nature of many families living in areas of high socio-economic disadvantage," the researchers comment.

As the reception children were too young to be assessed using conventional measures of reading, other methods were employed.

Children were, for example, asked to pick out the one word in three that began with a different sound from the other two. The three-year follow-up tested the children's reading accuracy, comprehension and spelling.

The Sunderland researchers suggest several possible reasons why the volunteer programme was unsuccessful: it lasted six months rather than a full academic year; the reading programme, though carefully devised, may not have been appropriate; the children who needed most help often received less attention, because the volunteers found it difficult to persevere with tasks when infants were restless or unresponsive; and the liaison between teachers and volunteers may have been inadequate.

"Nevertheless, the fact that there were no greater gains in reading performance on the part of the experimental groups in any of the three schools would appear to indicate that substantial volunteer reading support does not automatically result in improved academic performance," the researchers say.

"While adult volunteers would appear to ease the classteacher's load, inexperienced helpers are likely to require substantial guidance and support that will place significant demands upon their mentors. Where the turnover of volunteers is high, teacher guidance may become minimal and the initiative may be counterproductive."

"Volunteer support in the primary classroom: the long-term impact of one initiative upon children's reading performance," by Julian Elliott, Jane Arthurs and Robert Williams of the School of Education, University of Sunderland, will be published in the March issue of the British Educational Research Journal.

Education researchers who wish to disseminate their findings in The TES should send summaries of no more than 750 words to David Budge, Research Editor, The TES, Admiral House, 66-68 East Smithfield, London, E1W 1BX. Tel 020 7782 3276. E-mail:

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