'It shows that we genuinely want to make a difference'

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
In pockets of Wales sixth-form students do voluntary work as part of their education: they take the Welsh baccalaureate. The qualification, which is being piloted in 19 schools and colleges in the principality, emphasises the role of non-academic talents and experience, such as community work, alongside core academic skills.

Brian Lightman, head at St Cyres comprehensive in Penarth, says the school is committed to community action. "We have 250 students in the sixth form and every one of them is involved in some form of community activity. The work they do is really extending their understanding of the world, helping to make them more rounded and independent individuals."

The introduction of the baccalaureate, he believes, has substantially changed the atmosphere in Years 12 and 13. "The students communicate more effectively with each other and staff, they are more confident about life and much more focused."

The school has set up a "bac board", which lists the opportunities open to students and allows them to add others. It covers external activities with charities, local sheltered accommodation, primary and special schools and hospitals, and schemes within St Cyres such as paired reading and mentoring. "Where there's a need they take part. The recipient gets a good and willing volunteer, and the student gets valuable experience," says Mr Lightman.

He hopes the baccalaureate will be developed across Wales and is "bitterly disappointed" that the Tomlinson report, which would have introduced a community work element to an overarching diploma in England, has been rejected by the Government. "If you talk about citizenship as being a separate issue, a bolt-on extra, it begins to lose its meaning," he says.

Ishtar Mahdi and Ben Clarke have both completed 30 hours of community service, Ishtar on environmental work in local parks and Ben as a sports coach in a youth club. The 17-year-olds are in no doubt about the benefits of voluntary work.

"I became much more aware of my surroundings and improved my communication skills by having to speak to the park rangers," says Ishtar. "Although I am quite sociable, I didn't realise that I would be able to talk so easily to adults outside school."

Ben believes that working with youth leaders has improved his teamwork skills; the administrative tasks have made him more organised. "When I took on the volunteering I imagined myself playing football all the time, but there was far more to it."

Both youngsters have also had a change of heart about their careers, deciding they want to work more directly with people. Ben, who'd thought he would be a computer programmer, now wants to be a doctor; Ishtar saw herself as a lab technician, but thanks to her new-found confidence wants to be a dentist.

They are converts to the idea of volunteering. "The more we do in the community, the more it helps," says Ben. "It makes the school more prominent and shows that we genuinely want to make a difference."

"We live and go to school on a big estate," says Ishtar, "and I think when kids my age get together, adults think we are out to make trouble. But I think I did change their views and opinions, even if just a little bit."

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