Volunteer army could be 'a godsend or a nightmare'

Emma Burstall

Every year for the past 10 years, two 16-year-olds have come into Wansbeck St Aidan C of E first school in Morpeth, Northumberland, full time to assist teachers. Their tasks range from photocopying, to helping children with reading and number work and supervising breaks.

The school has taken part in a programme run by Northumberland Training Agency on behalf of the county's Training and Enterprise Council which offers work experience in first schools (for four to nine-year-olds) to about 120 young people a year. Most of them are studying for National Vocational Qualifications in child care and education, or are on City and Guilds practical caring skills courses.

The scheme is one of a number which could become models for Labour's proposed national "citizens' service" which the party's education spokesman David Blunkett hopes will help regenerate Britain by offering 750,000 young people who are currently outside education, training and work a role in the community.

Mr Blunkett is awaiting the outcome of two pilot projects to be launched in January by Community Service Volunteers, of which he is a trustee.

These will offer opportunities for up to 150 young people a year in Cardiff and the London Borough of Southwark to undertake community work including helping teachers in schools and running before-school and after-school clubs.

CSV hopes to persuade the Government to extend the programme to give every young person in Britain aged 18-24 the chance to volunteer full-time for up to a year. Labour leader Tony Blair is said to be keen on the idea.

Mr Blunkett believes it is essential that young people are offered the chance to take part in community work as a way of helping them to make the transition to work and to play a full part in the community.

Some teachers are in two minds about the benefits to schools. Among them is David Sunderland, head of Wansbeck St Aidan.

After 10 years of taking in trainees, he and his colleagues say that the project mostly works well, but much depends on the quality of the recruits.

"When they come to us they have just left school and are untrained and unqualified. Sometimes they find the transition to becoming a member of staff quite hard," Mr Sunderland explains.

"Until last summer we had a part-time nursery nurse to help with training, but due to budget cuts we had to lose her so now it's down to the teachers. "

Although most trainees provide a useful extra pair of hands, they are no substitute for qualified ancillary staff. And the school does not have time or resources to deal with any great difficulties that occur.

"About seven years ago we had a boy trainee who found it very difficult to create the right sort of relationship with children. He wanted to be a friend and allowed pupils to climb all over him so there was a danger to his reputation and we had to hand him back. Otherwise, we've been very satisfied or we wouldn't have continued to take trainees. But the initial input from teachers as they settle in can be quite big," he maintains.

Deputy head Sharon Tait shares Mr Sunderland's views. "Some trainees are excellent and don't need a lot of help from teachers, but others don't have much initiative and are harder work. They can either be an absolute godsend or a nightmare."

Mary Murray, who teaches the reception class, adds: "A poor trainee can be like having several extra pupils."

All agree that citizens' service could only work if youngsters were properly vetted, trained and had the right level of motivation. "The scheme would need a great deal of support and I'd prefer to see the money it cost put directly into schools," Mr Sunderland adds.

Pat Chaney is head of St Luke's school, a 230-strong primary in Islington, north London. Through links with CSV, the school now has about 40 volunteers per week - aged between 20 and 60 - who contribute 40-minute sessions once or twice a week, mostly listening to reading. Most come from the local community, businesses and industries, and all undergo police checks.

"It's extremely good for pupils to have other adults taking an interest in what they are doing and has proved to be very valuable," Ms Chaney says.

However, she would be wary of taking unskilled young people who might use up valuable teacher time and prove a liability. "Schools have to have extremely good role models for especially young children who pick up negative vibes very quickly" she comments.

Arthur de Caux, senior assistant secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, meanwhile, supports the idea only if volunteers are vetted, trained, and can gain useful qualifications.

"If it's just a case of TECs dumping people in classrooms that they can't put anywhere else it would be a disaster."

And John Bangs, assistant secretary of the National Union of Teachers adds: "It's vital if young people are considering a career in education to be able to see how the system works, but any voluntary scheme would have to be properly managed and negotiated."

The latest youth trainees at Wansbeck St Aidan are in no doubt of the benefits. Claire Slaughter, 16, who has just joined the school, says: "Coming here and getting an NVQ will give me a miles better chance of finding a job working with young children later."

Erica Morton, also 16, adds: "There's something different to do every day and l'm learning a lot. ln the reception class where l'm working there are over 30 children. The teacher needs all the help she can get."

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