Voluntary aided

15th May 2009 at 01:00
Schools need unpaid helpers for everything from trips to the Scouts, but supply is waning. Hannah Frankel looks at the struggle to get the community on board

From his office window, Philip McElwee has a good view of parents as they drop their children off for school. One is dressed in pyjamas, dressing gown and slippers. Another still has a bath towel over her shoulder. Mr McElwee believes this is a reflection of the apathy and economic deprivation that surrounds Caedmon Primary School, which is situated on the outskirts of Middlesbrough in Grangetown. The school's challenge is to get these parents dressed, motivated and into the school; helping out and getting involved in their children's education. It is no small task.

"It's the poverty that comes from having nothing to aspire to," says Mr McElwee. "Our parents can struggle to see a future beyond lying in bed all day or watching TV for hours on end."

At Caedmon, getting parents and volunteers into school is an important community cohesion issue. But all over the country, schools have traditionally relied on a team of low or non-paid outsiders to help out on anything from school fairs to running after-school sports clubs.

And Every Parent Matters, published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families last year, emphasises that parental involvement in school "is a more powerful force than family background, size of family and level of parental education". Without it, the chances of educational failure increase dramatically, it says.

But while the demand for volunteers in schools has grown monumentally over the past few years, the supply is beginning to wane. "More and more parents need to work to bring in money," warns Margaret Morrissey from Parents Outloud, a pressure group looking at parental involvement in education.

"For the past few years, the Government has been encouraging mums to get back into work as soon as possible. They don't have the time to help out during the day. Things such as school trips are being cancelled because there aren't enough adults to accompany them."

Local businesses that have been involved with schools are also cutting back on their community programmes. One of the first things to go during a recession is a firm's "non-essential" activity or expenses. Where they once may have sent members of staff into schools to help with reading, writing or mentoring, many small businesses simply don't have the capacity anymore.

Gentoo, a social landlord based in Sunderland, is bucking the trend. It has trained 250 employees to deliver free, work-related learning programmes in five local secondary schools. Year 10 pupils can also experience a two-year work placement with the company, during which they are assigned a specially trained Gentoo mentor.

Not all companies will be as dedicated. "In the current economic climate, there may be a tendency to down-size community investment in talent," says Lyndal Stuart from Business in the Community, an organisation that encourages companies to have a positive impact locally. Donations are becoming less common, she adds, although practical support and volunteering are increasing.

But the recent economic downturn cannot fully explain why Caedmon parents are reticent about getting involved. Many of them will never have had a job in the first place. "Perpetual and generational unemployment is often the norm round here," says Mr McElwee. "It breeds apathy. We try to emphasise that life is rich and the world is vast and education can be exciting and creative."

Since Caedmon was amalgamated with another school five years ago, it has struggled to get any parents on board. At the smaller school, they felt secure and safe, Mr McElwee says. Its larger replacement can seem intimidating and anonymous. But, by proving itself a place full of possibilities and opportunities, it is starting to win the battle.

It has built strong links with museums and art galleries around the country, plus schools around the world. Parents who agree to join their children on the trips can share their fears and concerns with a home- school liaison officer who also accompanies the group.

Expanding pupils and parents' horizons is another priority. Parents are invited in to the school to learn about the countries they are about to visit, from Cyprus to Denmark.

"It helps the parents see that education is more than just about Sats," says Mr McElwee. "If it interests them, they'll want to be a part of it."

Five parents, who all started out as volunteers, are now teaching assistants at the school, including one father who has set up a cub scouts group at the school. Although he is employed on a part-time basis, he does the scouts club for free and is frequently helping out in school even when he is not being paid.

"A lot of our volunteers felt inadequate or useless at first, but then they saw how respected they were," says Mr McElwee. "They realised they had strengths and, as they felt more self-assured, moved up through the system with their children. It sends the message that this is a place where good things happen."

The experience of Caedmon volunteers chimes with Steve, a parent of three from Hull. Three years ago, he had no job, no qualifications and seemingly no prospects. That was until the primary school where his children attended encouraged him to get involved. He started to volunteer for a couple of hours a week, helping the pupils and teachers make displays.

Once his confidence grew, he worked on his own numercy and literacy at college and gained an NVQ level 2 and 3. The school went on to give him a job - and, more importantly, a future - as a teaching assistant.

Even when it does not result in paid employment, volunteering can be a win-win situation. Parents are given the skills to help pupils in class as well as their own children at home; young people gain valuable skills; businesses prepare the next generation for work, and schools get needed and varied support.

Goodwill is already being tapped by schools. Ten years ago, the National Confederation of Parent Teacher Associations (NCPTA) found that volunteers made a pound;75 million contribution to schools in England and Wales in terms of overall funds raised and time given freely. Today, it is more like pound;200 million a year, estimates Mrs Morrissey.

Schools that pitch their needs in an appealing way should still be able to benefit from volunteers. At Redlands Primary School in Fareham, Hampshire, parents have driven up reading standards beyond all expectations.

Some parents were initially skeptical about getting involved, believing that it was not their job. In the end, Kevin Harcombe, headteacher, sent out an SOS letter to all parents.

"We explained that we had a group of children who needed a caring adult to help them read by listening to them, and explained what a fulfilling and wonderful task it would be. It said that even half an hour each week would make a difference."

Up to 15 volunteers or "reading heroes" stepped forward. Some committed to helping out on a daily basis, others to just a couple of half-hour sessions a week. They were given training by the school's literacy specialist, were checked by the Criminal Records Bureau and set to work.

"They've made an amazing difference," says Mr Harcombe. "We've had no dropouts in 18 months of running the scheme and the children value them enormously. They like the one-to-one tuition and the chance to chat about what they are reading to a friendly and familiar adult."

If parents do not get involved in their children's primary school, they are unlikely to come on board at secondary level. That was what prompted Thornleigh Salesian College in Lancashire to target all its primary feeder parents, as well as its own, in a 20-mile Olympic-style relay around Bolton last year.

The race involved 160 runners from across the whole community handing over the Commonwealth baton 48 times. Each handover was met with great cheers from the toga-wearing crowd, who had prepared for the day in advance at home and school.

"The spectacle of the thing was fantastic," says Helen Grundy, director of sports specialism at the college. "One parent said it was like the evacuation of the troops at Dunkirk. They welcomed the opportunity to do something together as a family."

The day has acted as a catalyst to follow-up events. The primary schools have put on other fun sporting events that target parents, which have been much better attended. Having never been to the school before, parents have even popped into the staffroom to informally discuss their children's progress.

Making every parent welcome is crucial, says Mrs Morrissey. "Volunteers don't have to be high flyers to make an important contribution," Mrs Morrissey says. "A gardener can help pupils create their own allotments, or a car mechanic can bring vocational education to life."

She has seen a big increase in grandparents getting involved over the past five years, usually because they have more free time than the parents. Police and vicars are popular choices, especially for assemblies or citizenship.

"It must have a significant `wannabe factor'," she adds. "The senior management team needs a clear vision about who they want in and what they want them to achieve."

Not all volunteers will be appropriate. Some will struggle to realise that swearing is not permissible in school, or that younger children need a greater deal of patience.

"It's unfair for schools and parents to insist everyone comes on board," says Mrs Morrissey. "It doesn't always work."

But when it does, it can transform lives. "`Schools that help volunteers discover where their strengths' lie is my definition of community cohesion," says Mr McElwee. "As long as you focus on what volunteers can do, rather than what they can't, it can benefit everyone."

Volunteers' Week, starting on June 1, is a national celebration of volunteers and volunteering. This year is its 25th anniversary. www.volunteersweek.org.uk.


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