Volunteering in Schools: Ticking the Box is Not Enough

Leonie and I recently wrote an article entitled Who Want to Be a Volunteer?, printed in the 2013 Charity Matters supplement in the Jewish Chronicle a few weeks ago. In this article, volunteering in schools was identified as one of the two means of volunteering that has come to the fore in recent years (the other was employee volunteering). The introduction of citizenship as a compulsory subject in secondary schools in 2002 has certainly helped to raise the profile of volunteering in schools, alongside the political focus of the Big Society. Schools in the Jewish community are no exception. But is this really a good reason to promote volunteering? Would another logic be just as successful? And what would this alternative viewpoint be?

In order to assess this, we need to look at the main stakeholders in the volunteering that takes place in schools. JLGB’s excellent Strategy for Jewish Youth Volunteering, presented to a group of charities earlier this week, identifies four key partners: charities; schools; young people; and their parents. These are clearly four very different groups, and each has their own objectives and rationale. I’ll examine each of these groups in turn.

To start with: schools. Volunteering is encouraged more and more in our community’s schools. Enrichment days and Sixth Form volunteering fairs are run by JVN and JLGB in all the mainstream Jewish secondary schools in London, and JVN is afforded the opportunity to promote university volunteering in schools up and down the country at UJIA JAMS events. One aim of this enhanced focus may well be to create model students – to establish the schools as a beacon of goodwill and a pillar of modern society. Or, to evoke the religious lingo, a light unto the nations. But is it possible that schools see volunteering as an “easy option”. It is no secret that the Jewish community is flooded with charities, with one for every 70 Jews in the UK (about 2,500 in total, and that’s not including the many more unregistered charities). So it is possible that volunteering is merely a box-ticker. Once they have promoted it and perhaps provided the opportunities for their students to do it, schools are well on their way to fulfilling their citizenship obligations. The benefits of volunteering for students and the charities are merely an added bonus. But if we want to see an inspired, motivated generation of young people volunteering as they transform into responsible and socially conscientious adults, surely the place where they spend up to eight hours a day, five days a week could advocate volunteering in a different way.

Jewish schools: is volunteering just a box-ticker?

Jewish schools: is volunteering just a box-ticker?

The charities are also important – where would volunteering be without their support? Involving young people can do wonders for the image of a charity, and hopefully they also see it as helping their volunteers perform a mitzvah (good deed). But many charities still fail to provide good meaningful volunteering opportunities for young people, especially those under 16 years of age. Obviously the public liability insurance of the charity is an issue; but it would be expected that a reasonable sized charity would be able to afford it. This also applies to CRB checks, risk assessments and Child Protection Policies. And there may be an issue as to whether the children are properly qualified to work with certain vulnerable individuals such as other children, the elderly or people who are unwell; but, as the JLGB Strategy clearly points out, there is no minimum of maximum legal age for volunteering – this is merely an urban myth that many charities subscribe to. NCVO and Volunteering England also support this assertion. Provided that the charities implement the proper safeguards and advertise suitable opportunities, there is no legal reason why younger volunteers cannot be involved. And they have a lot to give. It will benefit everyone involved if charities provide more volunteering opportunities for younger people. And meetings are going on now between charities, supported by PaJeS (Partnerships for Jewish Schools), to see how this can be done.

But surely the most important party involved is the young people themselves. Whenever I go into schools to talk about volunteering, the enthusiasm to give back is apparent. But the lack of opportunities to volunteer is clear too. And not only do more opportunities need to be made available, but they must also be tailored to the students’ needs – they need to be more flexible with regard to time, taking schoolday hours into account, and the demands of the role must be appropriate for the age group. They also need to be made more aware that volunteering shouldn’t cost them anything (remuneration for expenses incurred is not commonplace), and of accolades such as the Yoni Jesner and vInspired Awards that they can earn, which will look great on their UCAS forms and CVs.

The Yoni Jesner Award Scheme: a good enough reason to volunteer?

The Yoni Jesner Award Scheme: a good enough reason to volunteer?

Volunteering in schools must be for the students’ benefits first and foremost. It may be the case that too much emphasis on volunteering is disenchanting. I have had students as young as 14 come to me when their school arranges for them a volunteering placement for a day or two and saying, “How can we be volunteering if they are forcing us to do it?” And they’re absolutely right. Whilst it is important to instil the values behind volunteering and make the opportunities readily available, perhaps schools need to focus more on encouragement rather than factor volunteering into the curriculum as a compulsory activity in order to tick a box.

The final stakeholder group of volunteering in schools is parents. Although perhaps a lesser factor than location, academic performance and facilities, an assessment of a school’s community and ethos is potentially important when parents and even the young people themselves decide which secondary school to select. As one particular charity representative recently put it, every parent wants their child to give them nachas (joy and blessings). And this is achieved not only through academic success but also by being a good citizen, whether of the Jewish, local or wider community. If parents lead by example and start to volunteer, this might help to encourage their children to do likewise. But it is probably the case that just so long as parents see that their child’s school offers volunteering opportunities, they will be satisfied.

I do not believe that young people necessarily need a great deal more encouragement to volunteer. Awards and elaboration on the benefits they will receive are often a good incentive. But it is important that they do so for the right reasons as well, and it is therefore important that the institutions that require them to volunteer – the schools – and the organisations able to provide the opportunities – the charities – appreciate these values too. The schools must understand that enforced volunteering in order to tick a box is not the attitude that will engender a more altruistic spirit amongst their students. If schools want them to graduate as mature, respectful and conscientious citizens then they need to find the correct equilibrium between coercion and persuasion. The benefits of volunteering must ultimately be for the students. And charities must also be more open to the idea of accepting younger volunteers and offering meaningful volunteering experiences to them. Everyone has something to offer when they decide to volunteer, regardless of age or ability. I prefer to have faith that our community’s children have a good sense of right and wrong and a caring nature; and it thus follows that if the opportunities to do the right thing are offered, and the barriers to and disenchantment towards volunteering are remedied, the schools will tick their boxes and meet their goals in a way that satisfies the government and their students’ parents, the charities will benefit from a new resource base, and the young people will be instilled with a willingness to volunteer that they will take with them onto the next stage of their life.

Do you agree that schools need to change their attitude towards volunteering? Or do you have a story about a young volunteer to illustrate a point? Leave your comments below or talk to us on Twitter. And to find your own volunteering experience, remember to visit the JVN website.

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Categories: Volunteering, Volunteering Issues

Author:Mike

Hi, I'm Mike, JVN's Youth Co-ordinator and blogger. I'll be blogging about all sorts of issues affecting the volunteering community, with a particular focus on how recent developments might affect the UK Jewish community's volunteers. I'm always interested to read the comments you make. If you have something you want to see in the JVN blog, e-mail me at mike@jvn.org.uk and I'll be happy to talk. And if you're inspired by any of my blogs to volunteer, log on to www.jvn.org.uk and register to find your perfect volunteering opportunity.

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