Where the students are really happy to help

10th October 2014 at 01:00
Croydon College's culture of volunteering has contributed hugely to the local community, leading to a prestigious national award

Earlier this year, Croydon College in South London became the first further education institution in the UK to receive the Queen's Award for Voluntary Service.

Equivalent to an MBE, it is the most prestigious award available for voluntary groups and recognises their outstanding achievements in striving to improve quality of life in their local communities.

The award was presented to the college in recognition of the 18,000 hours of voluntary work its student body had clocked up in the 2012-13 academic year. As if the equivalent of more than two years of volunteering wasn't enough, in 2013-14, the students went one better and recorded a further 24,000 hours.

Croydon College's volunteer culture is unique and thriving, which is largely thanks to Di Layzelle, head of student life, who celebrates a quarter of a century working at the college this year.

Trained as a PE teacher, Layzelle moved to Croydon College in 1989 to help with the development of vocational sports and fitness courses. It wasn't long before volunteering became a crucial part of the curriculum.

"I have always believed in learning by doing," she explains. "The students were learning about anatomy, physiology and coaching principles, but you don't really learn how to coach until you are thrown into the field. You have to apply that knowledge in a real working environment."

So Layzelle encouraged her students to go into local primary schools and coach pupils in PE and games. The success of the scheme was noticed by the college and Layzelle was invited to work with other staff to develop tutorial provision.

Before long, the project "mushroomed", as Layzelle puts it, and she started working across the college in tutorial provision and developing the wider curriculum - for example, the post-16 citizenship programme.

Her career at Croydon went from strength to strength. The many successes that followed included working with children's charity Unicef. As part of this, she visited Geneva to learn about the rights-respecting schools agenda. She also established partnerships with Danish and Canadian schools to give Croydon students a wider choice in volunteering and developed the college's Volunteer Pledge Award.

But this was just the tip of the iceberg. Layzelle convinced the management to change the ethos of the college from the bottom up; all students are now expected to engage in some form of community involvement.

`Exhilarating and rewarding'

Opportunities range from events to raise awareness of issues such as domestic violence, human trafficking and child labour to filling shoeboxes with presents for orphans at Christmas, making local environmental improvements and holding intergenerational events with elderly people in the community.

Now students come up with their own ideas for volunteering, which are then approved and monitored by Layzelle and other college staff. This work is "exhilarating and rewarding", she says, adding: "It should never be underestimated how much young people can achieve.

"We get students for whom college is a last chance; young people who don't have self-belief and confidence. We offer them another opportunity to succeed.

"It's about finding that thing, that cause that touches a young person, something that they are passionate about."

For a volunteering project to be successful, it has to be meaningful, Layzelle says. "It's not just about giving three hours of your time to visit some place and call it volunteering," she adds. "It has to be volunteering for a purpose, for social change."

But it's not only the community and the college that benefit, the students appear to gain enormously as well. "The world of work is highly competitive. Volunteering adds another dimension [to students] that makes them attractive to employers," Layzelle explains. "It's inspirational for other students, too, so it becomes self-perpetuating."

One young person who has really benefited from volunteering is 17-year-old A-level student Ryan Raghoo, who put in more than 1,000 hours last year.

"Through my work with Unicef I have been involved with national and international campaigns, I have been given the chance to go and teach human rights in Denmark," he says. "I would encourage everybody to volunteer. It is a precious opportunity to develop as an individual."

Elizabeth Akindutire, 19, who is studying health and social care at the college, agrees. "There is incredible value in being of service to others. You truly find out a lot about yourself," she says.

Leaders also recognise the value of such activities. "Student volunteering at Croydon College is on a remarkable, laudable and significant scale, led by an inspirational manager," says Frances Wadsworth, the college's principal. "I am incredibly proud of the work that Di has achieved with our students and the scope and levels of support they have delivered to benefit others."

For Layzelle, the college's volunteering award is "phenomenal", but she insists the achievement is for the students, not herself.

"People flourish and blossom and achieve what they thought they could never achieve," she adds proudly.

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