From the magazine; Rallying the troops

Time and money are two very finite resources in schools; in fact, according to recent academic research, more than four in ten Kent primary schools are now dependent on fundraising to deliver basic education – something that could be equally true nationwide. Marie Cahalane considers the increasing role of voluntary action in education and how you can effectively tap into, and engage, your ‘homegrown’ resources

‘While voluntary action has a long and established role in education in England, the scale on which it is currently occurring is beyond any seen since the state took responsibility for education provision in the early 20th Century.’ These are the introductory words of A bridge too far? The increasing role of voluntary action in primary education (2018). Published by the University of Kent, this report revisits a 2016 paper on the same subject – To bridge the gap? – recapping the headline figures and concentrating on four significant areas of change identified in subsequent research.

The report highlights that the amount of voluntary action in primary education is increasing, that the push for voluntary action is out of necessity rather than choice, that there are several ‘breakaway schools’ with a strong culture of philanthropy and that the gap between schools, in terms of voluntary action, is widening. According to the report the number of schools which say they feel pressured to increase fundraised income rose from 66% to 94% between 2016 and 2018, and the proportion of schools which say fundraising is a core strategic focus rose from 29% in 2016 to 60% in 2018. While the report focuses on the primary setting, secondaries, too, benefit from voluntary action.

A place for voluntary action
The great thing is that it’s working – schools are seeing an increase in donations of both money and time. While, in 2016, around 10% of primary schools secured more than £10k in donations, in 2018 this has risen to 40%. In 2016 the schools at the top of the list received approximately 72 minutes of volunteer time per child, per week; in 2018 this figure stands at 75 minutes.

How are schools achieving this? According to the survey data, 63% say they increased their strategic focus on engaging and using volunteers and 70% claim to have increased the fundraised income their school receives – through local business and working in partnership with other schools to fundraise and to attract volunteers.

The role that volunteers play in the school, the report observes, is a dual one; they are at once used to support enrichment activities in relation to the school’s curriculum and are also seen as a ‘cost saving mechanism’, replacing previously paid support staff such as teaching assistants and specialist support staff.

A culture of philanthropy
The most successful schools are those with a ‘culture of philanthropy’, with responsibility for fundraising and volunteer recruitment shared among all staff and volunteers, the report found, advising that a close relationship between school management and the parent-teacher association (PTA) is optimal. “Parents have always volunteered their time and skills in schools,” Kerry-Jane Packman, development and membership director at Parentkind, explains adding that, in this climate of funding constraints, they can be an additional resource to be harnessed. In 2016, according to research by Parentkind among its 14,000 PTA members, over three million volunteer hours were given to schools nationwide – the value of which is over £20m.

Research tells us that establishing strong relationships with parents – bringing them into the school in different ways – provides schools with a more supportive network which can input into school improvement and policy development. “When parents volunteer their time as members of the PTA the benefits also include the raising of funds that can be put towards school enrichment or extra classroom resources which support learning,” Kerry-Jane says. Volunteers can support projects to improve the school environment – painting classrooms or improving the school garden – and a greater range of extra-curricular activities can be organised – for example, cross-country, art sessions or choirs.

Another ‘homegrown’ source of volunteers is your alumni; they are also relatable role models for pupils – helping to motivate and support existing students. “These volunteers are particularly valuable because they are grounded in the same community and are able to better understand the needs of today’s generation,” says Matt Lent, CEO of Future First, an organisation which exists to help schools connect with their alumni. Schools often require external support and expertise – as mentors, inspirational speakers, subject tutors, fundraisers, governors, and more; your alumni can fill these positions, working as an additional resource pool which your school can tap into.

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Independent schools and universities have long been actively recruiting their alumni. Engaging your school’s alumni can require you to play the long-game, maintaining links with past students, but it can be a profitable resource for poor schools. Last year alone, through the Future First network, more than 11,000 alumni volunteered at their former schools to broaden students’ jobs horizons and boost their aspirations for the future. “Their contribution represents more than 20,000 hours of volunteering time, providing an invaluable boost for state schools currently grappling with limited budgets,” Matt notes.

Tell your story well
When it comes to attracting volunteers and volunteer support (aka funding) schools are already at an advantage – people see educating young people as a worthy cause. However, in order to make certain that your volunteer programme is effective, the report stresses the importance of ensuring that you set your school apart from the rest. How? Be proactive in your approach – ask for what you need; be specific in relation to what it is you require (money, time – both?). The report suggests taking a collective approach – including all parties involved – ensuring that you maximise existing opportunities as well as you seeking out new ones.

Closely tied to being proactive is creating the right narrative; your ‘story’ provides the motivation volunteers need. Rethink your narrative – forget harping on about depleting budgets (you’ll be lost amidst the din) and consider making some noise about what can be achieved and how you can take your school beyond the basic. Schools are – or should be – at the heart of the community; where a dual benefit – meeting both educational and community needs – can be established, you will be better placed to secure increased fundraising income and volunteer time. Don’t miss this out in your narrative.

It’s important that parental engagement is led from the front – senior leaders, trustees, governors. The most successful instances of engagement will see you take the time to understand the local community and the families your school serves, Kerry-Jane advises, identifying and working through any barriers that you find – for example, language barriers.

A strategic approach
When it comes to rallying the troops it is essential that you invest in people and take a strategic approach to management. Schools must equip those individuals tasked with fundraising and volunteer management with the appropriate time, skills and knowledge needed to make it a success; furthermore, a school-wide understanding of the importance of voluntary action should be supported to define roles and limitations and keep expectations realistic.

So, what does a well-managed volunteer programme look like? Matt advises that volunteer development and engagement – in terms of alumni or others – should be built into your school’s development plan. “When it works well, the volunteer network feels embedded across the school community, part and parcel of their offer to students, with staff from different subjects and year groups accessing the support that former students can offer, and with senior leadership advocacy,” he explains. To achieve this, it’s crucial that you spend the necessary time identifying areas of need across the school and thinking through how volunteers can best help.

Interestingly, the Parentkind teacher survey of 2017 found that fewer than a fifth (19%) of respondents said their school had a written parental engagement plan and fewer than a quarter (24%) said their school had some measures in place to track parental engagement, Kerry-Jane reveals. As voluntary action continues to prove itself a necessary resource for schools, it’s important that schools are prepared to take a strategic approach. Are you?

This article featured in the November issue of Education ExecutiveSubscribe now to keep up-to-date with the latest in school business management and leadership.

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