Make a little help go a long way

17th August 2012 at 01:00
Volunteers cannot and should not replace professional teaching, but used well they can complement it perfectly

Take a typical classroom: the children have to be there by law; the teacher has to be there; the teaching assistants also have little choice.

But at the back sits someone who does not have to be there: a mother with young children in nursery, a grandfather who has retired, a local office worker popping in for an hour or an undergraduate looking for work experience. Not only do they not have to be in your classroom, they are not being paid. They are volunteers, just a handful of the tens of thousands who lend a hand in schools around England.

Some 25 - including a former BBC correspondent - have been helping out at St Mary's Catholic Primary in Battersea, south London, giving 75 children an hour's extra reading practice over the year. In July, the school announced that it had seen a dramatic rise in key stage 2 results: 91 per cent of pupils had achieved the expected level 4 in both English and maths, compared with 52 per cent in 2011.

The success was a front page story for the London Evening Standard newspaper, which has "adopted" the 160-pupil school, helping to secure a #163;100,000 donation from Ukrainian billionaire Kostyantin Zhevago to fund dozens of helpers from the charity Volunteer Reading Help (VRH).

But Jared Brading, executive head of St Mary's, and Sue Porto, chief executive of VRH, both stress that using volunteers does not guarantee great Sats scores. They know that the key to getting the most out of volunteers is building relationships within schools that neither overplay nor devalue the role of people who give up their time for free.

"If you want volunteers to have a meaningful relationship, you have to welcome them, make them feel valued. We have a tea party for them at the end of the year, to say thank you," Brading says. "The reading volunteers have added an enormous amount to the life of the school. But the Sats results are primarily down to the hard work of teachers and children.

"The volunteers have supplemented and complemented that, and in a school where most children have English as an additional language, the opportunity to read with a trained adult is great. You can't put a plaster on bad teaching but you can complement good teaching."

Porto adds: "The most important thing in terms of relationships, and the thing we stress with schools, is that we're not there to replace teachers. We are there to help provide additional support that some kids need."

Use them wisely

So what do you do when someone turns up in your classroom offering to help?

"If people are volunteering, you want their time to be used well," says Sara Bubb, a senior lecturer at the University of London's Institute of Education. "Just because they are not getting paid is not to say you don't need to think about how to deploy them well. As a mum volunteer myself, I've really liked it when people know my skills and deploy me sensibly.

"I'm a teacher, so as a volunteer I could do anything - including taking your class - but sometimes I've gone in and would be sewing. I just felt doing cross-stitch was a bit of a missed opportunity. Why not give me something more challenging to do? It is lovely to have teachers in your class as volunteers because you know they can do anything."

Bubb adds: "Volunteers are a fantastic resource. You need to find out what they are good at and play to their strengths. You don't want them bored senseless - or terrified."

And of course, people are unlikely to simply turn up. Many schools now have someone, often the assistant or deputy head, who is responsible for coordinating volunteers. The first job, Bubb suggests, is not to grab anyone who is offering their time and give them a task that needs doing, but to find out what skills people have to offer that the school may be able to use.

Schools may often ask for parents who can help with certain tasks, but another approach suggested by Professor John Bastiani in his report Involving Parents, Raising Achievement is a semi-formal inventory that lists parents' cultural knowledge, work experience and special interests.

So someone does not just turn up in your class vaguely offering to help, but arrives knowing they have something to offer, whether it is reading, art, gardening or music. But there is more to teaching than being able to do something yourself. Helping volunteers communicate well with children is a key part of a teacher's role.

"One thing to bear in mind is that volunteers will model themselves on the teacher - on how the teacher speaks to children and how they manage behaviour," says Bubb. "There are a lot of unspoken things that will be picked up by volunteers about the culture in class."

And another tip - do not put parent volunteers in the same class as their own children, because their relationship outside school can distract from the task at hand.

At Water Hall Primary in Milton Keynes, where 43 per cent of children are on free school meals, there has been a noticeable change in the type of volunteers. Increasingly, people are looking not just to share their experience, but also to gain skills. This means that while the primary concern of a school is the needs of the children, a successful relationship will also take into account the needs of volunteers.

Formal policy

Deputy head Karen Roberts introduced a formal policy a couple of years ago to cover the school's work with volunteers. Prospective volunteers first go for an informal chat with her and, if they want to go ahead, Criminal Records Bureau (CRB) checks are done. Once all the paperwork is complete, a more formal interview takes place, where volunteers are told about the school's policies and training is given, if required.

"What we don't do is just say, 'Yes, there you go,'" says Roberts. "Because we're about raising standards so that volunteers can be really helpful and useful and have a lot of skills to offer. But we need to make sure they are moving children's learning on.

"If they're reading with children, we explain that we encourage children to turn the pages themselves and point to the words themselves. It's worth investing a little bit of time with them."

While the school is keen to ensure volunteers have training where needed, it also has different sorts of volunteers - parents, secondary school students, undergraduates - doing jobs ranging from helping with literacy to accompanying school trips, working in the library and helping to serve free breakfasts.

And as well as the benefits for students and the experience gained by the volunteers, Roberts points out that welcoming people into school helps children in a less tangible but still valuable way by binding the community together.

"It makes people feel they can do things," she says. "We work really hard to get parents across the door - a lot of parents see schools as frightening places because they didn't have a good experience of school.

"We want to break down those barriers and we never want to turn away a volunteer. We find something they are capable of doing because they are part of the community and we have a duty to support them in that way. And, at the end of the day, that will help children."

Becky McGuire, a teacher at Water Hall, enjoys working with volunteers. "The school wouldn't fall apart if we didn't have them," she says. "However, they bring lots of different qualities to children's learning. When our topic was India, one Indian parent came in and cooked Indian food with the children. Another time we had some Bengali dancing.

"I remember one reading volunteer when I was (working) in Year 5 who was just brilliant at listening to children read. She would ask the right questions and just had that knowledge of how to talk to children. I really saw a difference with those children who had that extra help."

McGuire advises meeting volunteers before they come into the classroom to chat through what they want and what the teacher wants - even putting a plan in writing if appropriate so that they know which children they will be working with. This is also the time to sort out small but important details, such as whether they prefer the children to call them MissSir or by their first name.

The impact of volunteering

Charity Volunteering England estimates that 41 per cent of adults volunteer to work in clubs or organisations - contributing an estimated #163;22.7 billion to the economy - and about 34 per cent of volunteers choose to work with schools.

But volunteering also seems to be decreasing, with the average number of hours spent doing it declining by 30 per cent between 1997 and 2007. And there has been an increase in episodic volunteering, epitomised by the rise of micro-volunteering - one-off calls for help, often through social media.

Could schools' increased focus on being able to measure the impact of what they do on children's progress be putting off casual volunteers? Certainly a study of volunteers in adult literacy by the Institute for Volunteering Research found that professionalism drives out helpers.

In the early 1970s, there was a huge drive to recruit volunteers for adult literacy work. About 45,000 volunteers, mostly middle class, got involved. During the 1980s, government funding paid for the professional development of volunteers and many were subsequently offered paid teaching work, against a background of rising unemployment and public spending cuts. Consequently, the number of volunteers dropped to 20,000, and by the end of the 1990s the teaching of adult skills had been professionalised, leaving very few volunteers.

The shift was driven by the increased acceptance that adult illiteracy was not an individual's misfortune but something the state could and should tackle, by the best means available. There had been tensions around volunteers, with hostility towards the idea that the (mostly working class) students should be grateful that anyone (mostly middle class) wanted to help them. But many volunteers, who may have been teachers, social workers or librarians, genuinely wanted to help.

Yvonne Hillier, now a professor of education at the University of Brighton, concluded her review of this period by saying that the tensions between volunteerism and professionalism should not be seen as a problem to be solved but rather something to be managed. Paid staff are important, but there is also value in volunteers, who widen the spectrum of people involved and may have valuable skills to offer.

VRH treads a middle ground between volunteerism and professionalism. Schools pay a contribution of #163;525 for a volunteer, who works with three children. Volunteers are interviewed and not everyone is accepted. If they are taken on, they must commit to working in a school for an entire year. The usual amount of time is one and a half hours, twice a week. After the volunteers are accepted, subject to CRB checks, they spend two days being trained.

But VRH makes no claims to replace teachers and strongly advises schools not to use their volunteers as a cheap intervention for children who need more specialist help.

Impact of the recession

Pauline Lewis, 65, of Wednesfield, Wolverhampton, is a VRH volunteer. Before she retired she worked as a sales adviser for Marks amp; Spencer, but also volunteered as a Brownie and Girl Guide leader as well as at Sunday school. She has been reading with children at Trinity Church of England Primary in Wolverhampton for three years.

"The training was a lot of very common sense stuff about how you help the children to read. Don't tell them the words but hint and use lots of encouragement, that sort of thing," she says. "The headteacher at Trinity was really up for it and there was one teacher who was sort of worried that I was coming in to check on her, but we got on great once she realised I was helping alongside her, just to give a bit of one-to-one for those children."

There is some evidence that the recession is having a negative impact on volunteering. A public spending squeeze means that organisations that support volunteers are vulnerable. And those who are unemployed are less likely to volunteer than those in work - possibly feeling that their time should be spent looking for work or doing something that will be a positive boost for their CV.

Matthew Welton, headteacher of Trinity, which serves a relatively deprived area, has seen this trend himself. "A lot of parents now are volunteering because they are thinking of becoming teachers," he says. "It's a reflection of the job market, with teaching seen as a secure job. And, seeing through the effect on their own children, that this is something they enjoy."

Volunteers such as Lewis, who goes into the school twice a week, every week, have a variety of reasons for helping. Schools have a variety of reasons for wanting help. But when asked why she keeps turning up, Lewis's answer is the same as for paid staff: the children.

As she walks through the school carrying her large "box of tricks", full of reading books, writing materials and board games, she is accosted by "her" children asking if they can come and read first. "It gives you a buzz," she says. "You see them getting better."


Volunteer Reading Help:

Volunteering England is a charity that supports volunteers and carries out research. It has a network of volunteer centres that work to match volunteers and organisations. See the website for details:


- Make one person responsible for volunteers.

- Consider drawing up a volunteer policy to cover aspects of work such as Criminal Records Bureau checks, whether training is required, rules on child confidentiality and whether parents work with their own children.

- Make volunteers feel welcome.

- Find out what skills volunteers have (consider making an inventory). People do not want to feel underused, but make sure they feel comfortable with what you are asking.

- In the classroom, remember that the volunteers will copy how you behave with the children.

- Be very clear about what you expect a volunteer to do - put it in writing if necessary. Do not waste their time or yours.

- Always inform regular volunteers if you are going to be away on a school trip.

- Make time for chats about how things are going. If volunteers are working with individual children, have some way they can feed back to you.

- Invite volunteers to school assemblies and performances. They are part of the school community.

- Show your gratitude and celebrate their contribution.

In three words: welcome, communicate, celebrate.


Bastiani, J. Materials for Schools: involving parents, raising achievement (2003).

Former Department for Education and Skills.

Hillier, Y. Professionalising The 'Do-Gooders': the deployment of volunteers in adult basic skills from 1970 (2006). Institute for Volunteering Research. bit.lyMnAjkO


Micro-volunteering is giving small amounts of time on a one-off basis.

Orange's Do Some Good smartphone app is one way of taking part. The app works by giving people opportunities to volunteer for four hours in their community, in return for music rewards.

A survey of 3,600 people who volunteered this way, by the Institute for Volunteering Research, found that half did not care about the reward and a fifth did not even know about it.

The survey found that this way of volunteering seemed to attract young people, who were less likely to engage in volunteering action and charitable giving.

But while the volunteers were not motivated by extrinsic rewards, they were not helping out in order to give something back to the community, one of the most common reasons given by regular volunteers.

Instead they seemed to be driven by a "why not?" attitude. They wanted to fill some spare time and participation depended on how convenient the activity was.

The study found that micro-volunteering did not seem to raise the chances that people who took part would participate in wider volunteering, but neither did it seem to signal a shift away from traditional volunteering as the motivations of those taking part are so different.

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