Early in the autumn term, we carried out a survey of pupils, parents and community. We asked what we could do to make things even better in our school. All three groups identified opportunities to volunteer as their first choice.
Volunteering is already well established in our school. We have been running the Millennium Volunteer programme for more than six years. It was originally funded by the Department for Education and Skills through Community Service Volunteers (CSV), but when that well ran dry we raised funds ourselves to keep it as part of our extended-school programme.
The V programme, as it is now called, is organised and led by a former volunteer who attended our school and returned from university to become project co-ordinator. The Volunteer project was originally designed for 16 to 24-year-olds and nearly all of our sixth-formers and other young people from the community signed up. Several hundred youngsters have since completed 200 hours of volunteering.
The programme is very structured and carefully co-ordinated. It allows young people to volunteer in areas that interest them. They are paid expenses and get lots of opportunities for training. Their activities all help to produce an impressive CV. We can signpost our youngsters to suitable volunteering opportunities, either in our local area or across London. Occasionally, we arrange something further afield and a small number manage to go abroad to developing countries to take part in global volunteering programmes.
The benefits to the school are many. Besides enrichment opportunities, volunteers help us to deliver holiday programmes and after-school activities. They form part of our positive playground team and enable us to make sure unsupervised time is structured and safe. They volunteer in local youth clubs, a city farm, primary schools, and many support our own youngsters.
Students who complete 200 hours of volunteering are subsequently employed part-time to run community activities or in local youth clubs. But, more importantly, being volunteers helps them to get into universities or jobs.
This is one way we are seeking to develop community leadership and capacity. In response to our consultation, we have now lowered the minimum age of volunteers to 14 and have been inundated with applicants.
The next stage will be more difficult. We want to recruit a number of adults in our community who want to volunteer. Doing this in a structured way will take time and be expensive, but the advantages will be many.
Volunteers who are properly trained and managed will add greatly to our capacity to support young people. They can volunteer in other schools and children's centres, youth clubs and other organisations. This way, we will be building social capital and strengthening our community. Our experience tells us that adult volunteers are able to walk into jobs and escape the "workless" trap that holds back so many people in our community. We can provide a work history and a reference - things that previously kept them out of the workplace.
We believe it is important that we build the capacity of our community so that it can support itself and not be dependent on us as professionals.
Building social capital is the best way to do this. Ministers' rhetoric is all about strengthening communities but they need to put their money where their mouth is. Schools are well placed to develop volunteering for the wider community as well as pupils. But it must be funded. There needs to be a dedicated member of staff to set it up, track participants, liaise with providers and provide quality assurance. It is well worth the effort.