Hands up! Introducing volunteering in schools

Written by: Karen Sullivan | Published:
Hands-on: There are a number of volunteer programmes out there, including the government-funded National Citizen Service, which includes community action work (Photo: National Citizen Service)

A raft of research shows the benefits to students of volunteering to help their local communities and others. Karen Sullivan takes a look and offers some ideas

David Cameron’s “Big Society” may not have materialised as planned, but there are plenty of good reasons to encourage students to get out into the community and offer their services.

With the growth of social media, giving and helping others has become not only a heart-warming reminder of the good that still exists around us, but acts as an inspiration for others to do good, and not just for the recognition.

While random acts of kindness have undoubtedly been proven to instil happiness and encourage self-esteem, a more concerted and long-term effort and commitment to helping our fellow citizens can provide enormous benefits on both individual and societal levels, and it is time that all of our students got involved.

Some schools insist upon a stint of community service in order for students to attain their school “colours” or the school’s diploma. Equally, it forms a part of programmes like citizenship studies, the Duke of Edinburgh Award, the National Citizen Service, the International Baccalaureate, ASDAN’s community volunteers’ qualification and more – which offer valid opportunities that can broaden the minds and horizons of students.

If your school is not involved in these types of courses or initiatives, why not task your students with developing programmes that are uniquely suited to your area.

For example, teaching foreign languages, setting up after-school clubs in sports, art or music, or helping with reading at local primary schools; creating a neighbourhood garden; helping out at local nursing homes or hospices; volunteering at local animal shelters, working at local charity shops or arranging collections.

The list goes on: assisting with flood clear-ups if these have affected your areas; providing snow-shovelling services in the winter months, particularly in areas where there are vulnerable people; helping older people with computer skills; informal language or reading lessons for new immigrants or refugees; setting up a fundraising initiative for a school, youth club or play centre in an underprivileged area – or, indeed, in a Third World country.

There is also no reason why you can’t provide opportunities for “in-house” volunteering, helping less able children, peer-mentoring, skill-sharing initiatives, running extra-curricular clubs and societies, fundraising, refurbishment and decoration of communal areas and more.

The Red Cross runs an excellent volunteering programme, with multiple benefits.
According to a recent Ipsos MORI poll, around 40 per cent of 10 to 20-year-olds have volunteered in the past 12 months, with another 17 participating in volunteer schemes infrequently. Interestingly, around 43 per cent of students who do not volunteer said that not knowing what could be done or how to get involved was a barrier.

A 2011 Ofsted survey found that 40 per cent of those who volunteered said that the most important thing gained was a “good feeling” or the knowledge that they had helped.
On a more general level, students who participate in community service become better problem-solvers, develop a sense of responsibility and pride, and become more attractive to potential employers. It allows children to build on their existing skill-set and also allows them to extrapolate learning and use it in practical situations.

A US study by Davila and Mora (2007) showed that students who volunteer and become “civically engaged” tend to perform better in school subjects such as history, reading, science and maths, and are more likely to complete secondary-school education and further education.

They also found that community service “enhanced students’ problem-solving skills, improved their ability to work within a team and enabled them to plan more effectively”.
The Young People’s Volunteering and Skills Development report, published by the National Youth Agency in 2013, found that between 84 and 91 per cent of volunteers polled felt that their self-confidence had increased, with the same number identifying improved communication skills and an ability to work with others.

Meanwhile, WM Enterprise Consultants found that volunteering opportunities helped young people to develop soft skills linked to wellbeing, such as confidence and self-esteem, raised aspirations and enhanced social skills and networks, among others.

Moreover, a 2003 study (Brown, Neese, Vonokuir and Smith) showed that people who volunteer have better mental and physical health than those who do not, while ICM Research findings showed lower mortality rates, greater functional ability and lower rates of depression in later life.

And a 2010 study by Carlo, Crocket, Wilkinson and Beal found that volunteering develops “prosocial behaviours” that make adolescents less likely to break moral codes and engage in risky behaviours such as drinking to excess and smoking marijuana.

Perhaps most fascinatingly, a wealth of studies has found that volunteering develops empathy in children, and allows young people to connect with others in their community to provide a sense of belonging.

In an age of gangs and disaffected youth, this can’t be underestimated. Students who volunteer have the opportunity to meet and work with people from all sorts of different backgrounds, ages, levels of education, income brackets, religions and ethnicities, which encourages the type of tolerance from which every society benefits.

Adopting a school-wide volunteering programme can make a big difference to the lives of our students, particularly those whose free time is not monitored and whose influences and opportunities for integration are poor. From this point of view, it is win, win. What is your experience?

  • Karen Sullivan is a best-selling author, psychologist and childcare expert. Email kesullivan@aol.com

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