Olympic spirit inspires the next generation of volunteers
a dozen schools last year. One was St Saviour’s.
“We thought the best way forward was for the pupils themselves to decide what they would do,” says Flora Vidal, the senior teaching assistant who was put in charge of organising the school’s approach. “So we got the school council – which consists of two children from each of the seven classes – to discuss what they would like to do.”
The idea they came up with did not involve changing the school uniform to a purple tunic with red-fringed epaulettes. Rather it was green tinged. Pots were made and planted around the playground. Then, after a couple of months of careful cultivation, they were taken on a surprise trip to a residential home close by. Here each of the elderly residents was presented with their own pot plant. There were a lot of smiles – and no few tears – when children, some as young as four, delivered their specially made gifts to the old people.
“It was a lovely day,” says Vidal. “There was a couple in there who happened to be celebrating their 70th wedding anniversary that day. They were so touched to get their two pot plants. They said they couldn’t think of a nicer present.”
But the really interesting thing about this small act of volunteering was what happened next.
“Everywhere around the school, people started volunteering,” says Vidal. “They were sharpening pencils, helping with the lunch queue, picking up litter. Now they are busy getting stuff together for children in Syria. A huge parcel is being put together to send there for Christmas.”
The reason, she is convinced, is that the plant pot idea was theirs in the first place.
“It came from the school council,” she says. “Because it was not imposed on them by adults, the children really bought into what they were doing. They couldn’t wait for lunchtime so they could get out there watering the plants, or decorating the pots. Children are naturally really helpful anyway, but what this did was make them more aware.”
And that awareness has spread well beyond decorating pots.
“For the first time I can remember, children want to be on the school council. More than half the pupils now want to be on council. It’s made them more confident about coming forward. It has made them more communally minded. They just want to do more. They want to join in, be involved. A couple of parents have said to me their children’s confidence had really been boosted by being on the project.”
The pupils at St Saviour’s are not unusual. This is often the consequence of volunteering: as those behind institutions such as the Scouts, Guides and Cubs long ago recognised, it has a largely beneficial effect on those who volunteer.
“I think everyone saw through the Olympics that it’s great fun, great social networking, getting together, making friends. Which are all wonderful things in themselves,” says Wadley. “But if you integrate volunteering into children’s lives there is something more. Self-esteem, confidence, communication, teamwork all improve. These are soft skills that ultimately lead to an improvement in educational results.”
Wadley is convinced that it is this that will ensure every school, no matter how pressed it may be for time and resources, will engage enthusiastically with the idea of volunteering. As Marc Kielburger, co-founder of Free the Children, the organisation tasked by Team London to deliver the Mayor’s project across all of the capital’s schools, puts it: “We’ve seen firsthand that involving students in their communities creates an atmosphere of caring and compassion, and over the years we’ve seen the confidence and social conscience of hundreds of thousands of young people involved in our programmes grow and flourish.”
Free the Children will use young coordinators to encourage the pupils to come up with their own initiatives. No one will be told what to do by Team London. And this is the key. Not only does volunteering make the streets cleaner, the mood lighter and the smiles broader, properly directed it has a practical consequence on those who do it.
“Statistics show the value of volunteering,” says Wadley. “Research by Reed employment showed that 73 per cent of employers would employ someone with volunteering experience over someone without. What makes you stand out when you go for a university place or a job? It’s not just good GCSEs or A-levels. It’s those soft skills. Put volunteering in your life and it will help you.”
So, what are you waiting for?
Seeds planted: St Saviour’s pupils, above, and their plants for the Team London project inspired by Games Makers, below