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Did you know?

* Nearly a quarter of all voluntary work in the UK is carried out in support of schools

* Some schools have 20 or more volunteers on their books

* If the hours of voluntary help in schools were charged at the average national wage, the contribution would amount to pound;10 billion a year

* There are 370,000 school governors in the UK - the largest organised volunteer workforce in the UK

* Around 10 per cent of governor positions are vacant, and in London the figure is double that

* Parents don't always make the best volunteers

* A survey conducted as part of the United Nations' International Year of the Volunteer in 2001 found that volunteering was the second most pleasurable activity in people's lives - after dancing

Nearly a quarter of all voluntary work in the UK is carried out in support of schools, according to the National Centre for Volunteering. That's six million volunteers each giving an average of four hours every week. Or a billion hours of help each year. All in return for nothing more than job satisfaction - and the occasional free school lunch. Much of this support is behind the scenes as parents help to raise money or organise the summer fete. But volunteers are increasingly taking centre stage - on the governing body, in the playground and, not least, in the classroom. So how can schools get the most out of their voluntary helpers? Are they a bunch of do-gooders getting under teachers' feet, or do they represent community education at its best? And how easy is it to turn goodwill into good practice?

The legal obligations The Department for Education and Skills states that criminal record checks are not compulsory for volunteers working in schools, unless they have unsupervised access to children. However, a growing number of local education authorities are requesting full checks from the Criminal Records Bureau. Whatever the practice in your area, disclosures will reassure parents and make volunteers feel they are being treated in the same way as staff. And it won't cost you anything - the CRB doesn't charge for checks on volunteers. But it's your own vetting procedure that matters most. If you're appointing a volunteer who isn't known to the school, insist on references, just as you would for a paid employee. And even if volunteers have been cleared by the CRB, as a general rule they should not be left unsupervised with children - particularly in a one-to-one situation. Make sure volunteers are aware of basic health and safety regulations, and check that your insurance covers them, particularly for sports activities or when transporting pupils. Finally, it's good practice to offer to pay expenses, but make sure it's done out of petty cash. If you offer volunteers a regular weekly sum, however small, it can be interpreted as a wage. Not only will this interest the taxman, it can also be legally construed as a contract of employment.

The moral obligations

Volunteers work for nothing, but they aren't free labour. It's a fine line, of course, but the message from the unions is that volunteers should not be used to plug shortages, only to supplement existing staff. The National Association of Schoolmasters Union of Women Teachers stresses that volunteers should not "undermine the professional standing of trained staff, whether teaching or non-teaching". In particular, teaching assistants and ancillary staff can feel threatened if volunteers are asked to work alongside them doing a similar job for no money. "If it's mums coming in and cleaning up paint pots, then fine," says a spokesperson for the public service union Unison, "because that's not what TAs do. If volunteers are helping with literacy, for example, it can be more awkward.

But so long as they are used in addition to paid assistants and not instead of them, there's no problem."

Difficulties can usually be avoided by having a clear policy on volunteering, outlining how and why volunteers are going to be used, and explaining the benefits. Volunteer Development (see resources) offers a helpful code of conduct on the issue of "job substitution", the golden rule being that "volunteers should not be doing work that was formerly carried out by a paid employee or is still carried out by a paid employee". Having some kind of evaluation plan will allow you to assess whether volunteers are making an impact - and will reassure staff that you're looking to raise standards, not cut costs.

Pushy parents

Parents - especially members of the parent teacher association - are often the first to put up their hands for other voluntary work. It's important to harness that enthusiasm and not to offend your champion fundraisers. But be warned: parents don't always make the best volunteers. The charity Volunteer Reading Help has a policy of never placing parents in their own children's school, and while some heads believe that having mums and dads around adds to the sense of community, others feel it creates unease.

"There was an instance of one parent reporting back to the PTA about what she saw as the weaknesses of the teachers she'd been working with," explains one head. "Staff felt they were under surveillance."

One way around potential problems is to team up with a nearby school in a "parent-volunteer exchange". Although parents are keen to help "their" school, most will see the benefits of a partnership. Alternatively, make use of parents around the school, but not in the classroom. Certainly, having parents working with their own children's class is best avoided.

How do I find volunteers ?

Parents aside, volunteers usually fall into three categories: students, those working in local businesses and retired people.

Several organisations run schemes putting volunteers into schools (see resources). Some specialise in particular skills, such as reading support, while others provide general help. Using one of these groups means recruitment is done for you, and most of the organisations are experienced at matching volunteers to schools. Some training is also usually provided as part of the scheme. The only downside is that most of the charities report that demand outstrips supply, so they may have no recruits in your area. But it's worth a try.

Schools that handle recruitment themselves often find a strategically placed flyer or poster can be more effective than advertising in the local press. Libraries, adult education centres and student unions are all potential recruitment areas. It's also possible to get help from your local volunteer bureau - a kind of job centre for those seeking voluntary work.

Write to local businesses, but be wary of companies that nominate employees for duty. Unsuitable "volunteers" often turn out to have been press-ganged by bosses who think it boosts the corporate image. By asking businesses to do no more than display a leaflet on their notice board, you will make sure only those who are genuinely interested will apply As a general rule, target the immediate vicinity. Those who live or work close by are most likely to volunteer, and most likely to prove reliable.

Word of mouth is your most important recruiting sergeant. If volunteers have a positive experience of the school, they will encourage friends to get involved.

What can volunteers do ?

That depends on the individual. The trick is to find a role that suits the school and the volunteer. All schools have one organised and committed body of volunteers - the governors. Most have a second - the PTA. As far as in-school volunteering goes, the two most common contributions are general classroom assistance and one-to-one reading support. Some volunteers - such as artists, writers or sports people - bring specialised skills. Others adopt mentoring roles, providing personal and pastoral support. But not all volunteers want direct contact with pupils; many are content simply to pick up litter and stack chairs, answer telephones or work in the library.

Volunteers at the top

There are 370,000 school governors in the UK - the largest organised volunteer workforce in the country. They devote an average of 180 hours of their time each year, and for the chair of governors a year in office can be virtually a full-time job. It's not just the meetings, it's work carried out on the school's behalf, time spent on training courses, and involvement in school events. It's little wonder that recruitment and retention of governors can be difficult: around 10 per cent of governor positions are vacant, and in London the figure is double that.

"Many people volunteer to become governors and then feel overwhelmed," says Simon Bird, who has been carrying out research at the Education Network.

It's particularly difficult to attract "co-opted" governors who have no personal link with the school, even though a growing number of large employers such as HSBC and Boots are encouraging staff to become governors by offering them extra days of paid leave. The DfES plans to make the workload less daunting by introducing "associate governor" positions, and some schools already have "shadow governors" who work in an unofficial capacity for a year, before serving on the full committee.

The most effective governing bodies tend to be those that reflect the background of the pupils in the schools. Training is available through LEAs, but many governors are reluctant to use school funds to access the courses on offer. "Governors see themselves as true volunteers and they don't want to feel that they're taking money from the children," explains Neil Davis of the National Governor's Council. "But governor training is essential; it's an investment in the future of the school."

What can't volunteers do?

Volunteers are not qualified teachers, and they're not being paid. Everyone needs to be realistic in their expectations. Volunteers should never be left alone with a class, for example, or pressured into doing more than they want to. One volunteer recalls being asked to mark homework - not surprisingly, the person refused. But equally, volunteers like to be kept busy. They are giving up their time, so they don't want to feel it's being wasted.

Tricky teenagers

The majority of volunteers work in primary schools. Primary school parents usually have more contact with their schools, and volunteering often seems like a natural progression from doing the school run and marking up gym kit. At secondary level, it's a different story. Larger schools mean less personal contact. More parents are in paid employment, and sensitive teenagers can be horrified at the prospect of having a parent around school.

But Margaret Morrissey, of the National Association of Parent Teacher Associations, says an increasing number of secondaries encourage parents to get involved. "Having a strong PTA is the first step to persuading parents to help out in school," she argues. "And sometimes heads have to make the first move, and make clear to parents that they would be welcome." Luring non-parent volunteers can also be hard work. "There's a definite fear factor," says Betty Bryden, who recruits retired volunteers for Community Service Volunteers. "The image in the media is of poor discipline and threatening behaviour."

The best way to overcome those preconceptions is to invite potential volunteers to see your school for themselves. "The volunteers who do choose secondary schools have some of the most positive experiences," she adds.

Getting the most out of volunteers

A 1997 survey by the National Centre for Volunteering found that more people are prompted to volunteer because of their "own needs" than because of the "needs of the community". With that in mind, the first step is to find out what volunteers themselves want from their involvement.

The next step is to define what you expect from them. "It's dangerous to assume that having volunteers in school is good thing," says John Bangs, education officer of the National Union of Teachers. "You have to be clear what each volunteer is going to contribute."

Schools with many volunteers - and some have 20 or more on their books - usually appoint a volunteer co-ordinator. This may be a member of staff or a volunteer, and the individual's role is to ensure there's a clear focus to what each volunteer is doing and that they don't get in the way of staff.

It's a good idea to have a handbook. Volunteers will need basic facts about the school - parking, toilets, lunch arrangements, fire drills and so on - as well as information specific to their role. Explain clearly the standards you expect in terms of confidentiality and conduct. In short, try to treat volunteers in the same way you would treat employees.

Toxteth Educational Trust, for example, runs a Volunteers into Schools scheme that insists heads provide a contract-style agreement and a written job description. "Volunteers like to be treated as professionals, not as slave labour," says TET's Laura Wiggans. It's important to make volunteers feel they are a part of school life, even if they appear for just half an hour on a Wednesday afternoon. Inviting them to special assemblies and school events can help them feel included. The lack of material reward means volunteers appreciate gratitude even more than regular employees.

They're not teachers

The most common concern of new volunteers is what they should do if confronted by difficult behaviour. They need to know, for example, if they have any disciplinary powers. One of the great strengths of volunteers is that they are not authority figures, and it's best to keep it that way. Ask them simply to report bad behaviour to a teacher, rather than get personally involved. Similarly, it may be appropriate for volunteers to use their first names rather than a title.

It's because volunteers aren't teachers that they can bring something new to school. But the lack of barriers can also cause problems. "It's easy for children to become emotionally attached to a volunteer, especially if they're doing one-to-one work," explains Heather Brandon of Volunteer Reading Help. "We warn our volunteers to be careful. It's not good if a child becomes too dependent on them."

Is there any training for volunteers ?

Volunteers make such diverse contributions to school life that it would be impossible to offer general training. "It's up to individuals, schools and LEAs," says a DfES spokesperson. But organisations that run volunteer schemes often provide some level of training, even if it's only a few hours. And some offer far more extensive opportunities. Bexley Education Business Partnership, for example, runs a 10-day course called Helping in Schools, accredited by the National Open College Network and involving practical and written assessment. And almost all the schemes that involve volunteers in giving reading support provide at least two days' training in teaching literacy. But as most of the training for volunteers is carried out locally, the only way to find out what's available is to ask around. As well as charities aside, try your LEA and local volunteer bureau .

Just how valuable are volunteers ?

If the hours of voluntary help in schools were charged at the average national wage, the volunteering contribution would amount to pound;10 billion a year. Yet the real worth of volunteers is difficult to gauge, not least because they fill such a variety of roles.

Research in 2000 by the University of Sunderland, for example, found that using volunteers to provide reading support had no impact on standards.

"Having more adults in a classroom meant things got fragmented," says Professor Julian Elliott, who headed the research team. "Many of the volunteers lacked expertise, and there was surprisingly little liaison between staff and volunteers." But Heather Brandon, of Volunteer Reading Help, cites her organisation's research, which found that after a year of support, 23 per cent of the children improved their reading age by two years, while 89 per cent increased their self-confidence.

Regardless of whether or not volunteers help to raise standards, there is no doubt they make a positive contribution in other ways. They can provide children with positive adult role models, promote an ethos of citizenship and emphasise the value of education. Volunteers also enjoy their work. A survey as part of the United Nations' International Year of the Volunteer in 2001 found that volunteering was the second most pleasurable activity in people's lives - after dancing. So having volunteers in schools has got to make them happier places.

Main text: Steven Hastings.

Illustration: Patrick Lewis.

Additional research:Tracey Thomas.

Next week: Poverty.

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