Volunteer programme gets ready to turn the page

6th January 2012 at 00:00
A business-backed scheme in the capital is planning to go national

With her slight frame and young face, Shakela Uddin looks as though she could still be in school herself, but in fact the university graduate is in charge of a team of eight young adults who are helping teachers and support staff in two primary schools on the edge of London's financial district.

The group is part of City Year, the latest educational import from America, which gives school-leavers, students and university graduates aged 18-25 the opportunity to volunteer in a school for one year, offering help to teachers and teaching assistants.

City Year members certainly don't do it for the money - recompense comes in the form of #163;100 a week plus expenses. But in return for their service, the volunteers are paired up with one of a number of major sponsors from the corporate world.

Once on board, they are split into small teams or "corps" and wear the City Year jacket, their brightly coloured uniform. For four days a week, they work in their designated school, and on the fifth day they have the chance to gain work experience in a number of sectors, from engineering to finance.

The scheme is operating in seven schools and has attracted backing from the likes of Barclays Capital, Credit Suisse and National Grid. From this month, another two schools have signed up and the initiative's backers hope to see it rolled out to other cities in the UK by the end of this year.

The volunteers are placed in both primary and secondary schools, and although many of the applicants go in with an interest in pursuing a possible career in teaching, the scheme also appeals to ambitious young people looking for anything to give them the edge in an increasingly bleak job market.

"It's just a great opportunity to get some very good experience," says Ms Uddin. "When I look at myself now, I realise there are two Shakelas. The Shakela before City Year, and the Shakela now. I have learnt more about myself during this year than I did in three years at university.

"You are constantly put into situations that are out of your comfort zone. I have had to give presentations and do more public speaking, and I have also learnt how to network."

St Luke's Primary School is one of the first schools to pilot the programme. The school sits at the foot of a council high-rise, near Old Street in central London. The area plays host to a mix of extremely wealthy bankers, trendy, bohemian types and the very disadvantaged. St Luke's pupils tend to come from families in the last category.

The City Year team begin their day helping with the school's breakfast club. Once lessons start, they are on hand to assist pupils identified as struggling. They support pupils by giving them help in literacy and numeracy, allowing the teacher and the teaching assistants to focus elsewhere in the class. "We can also help with taking some children out of class; pupils who may have some behaviour problems," Ms Uddin says.

The team operates across two paired schools, St Luke's and Moreland Primary School, less than a mile away. Anne Dwulit, the federation's executive head, cannot remember how her school coped without the City Year volunteers. "They have been tremendous," she says. "They basically fill in the gaps between the teachers and the teaching assistants and are a very valued part of the team."

Ms Dwulit says the City Year team have energised the school. When parents drop off their children each morning, they are greeted by the sight of the students doing star jumps, led by the volunteers in their bright jackets. And Ms Dwulit attributes an improvement in attendance levels to the team's presence.

Ben Travers joined City Year two years ago, and after completing his placement became a founding corps member. He now helps to oversee a number of teams. "Each member of City Year is given a contact in the company that is sponsoring their team. They are able to have direct contact with them, ask them any questions and to be given interview techniques or tips," he says.

The programme is now attracting more applications than it can accommodate, making the selection process increasingly rigorous. "About one in every four applicants makes it on to the programme," Mr Travers says. "We don't just look at their academic ability; we need to be sure they have the right mentality - will they be able to work well with children and do they have the motivation that we are looking for?"

The programme operates in 22 states in the US and is running in schools in Johannesburg, South Africa. Sophie Livingstone, City Year's chief executive, says the programme was set up in the UK to focus on the rising number of Neets (young people not in education, employment or training).

"There are one million Neets in this country and City Year provides a wonderful opportunity for people like them," Ms Livingstone says. "Eighty-six per cent of last year's corps members went on to educational training or employment. National Grid hired one of our members as a result of their being on this programme, and I don't want that to be a one-off."


City Year was founded in 1988 by Michael Brown and Alan Khazei, two Harvard Law School students who felt a youth volunteer service would help meet some of America's needs.

Five years later, President Bill Clinton endorsed the programme and introduced AmeriCorps, the United States national service programme, which was inspired by City Year.

In 2005, City Year launched its first international scheme, City Year South Africa, and two years later plans for a programme in the UK were put forward.

City Year first launched in London in 2010.

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