Volunteering can help Vulnerable Children as Schools Reopen
Facing challenges from underfunding to teacher shortages, schools with a high proportion of disadvantaged students are struggling to maintain the quality of education. Volunteers are needed more than ever to help these vulnerable children recover from the damaging effects of lockdowns and move forward.
With schools reopening at last, children are finally making a start at resuming a school life that resembles normalcy. Exciting as it may sound, school—especially those with a high proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds, still face huge challenges and volunteering can be a good way to help narrow the education gap between children of different backgrounds.
Although significant efforts have been made over the years to narrow the education gap, a lot remains to be done and the difference can be life-changing. A recent report published by the Education Policy Institute (EPI), funded by the Nuffield Foundation, finds that poorer students in sixth forms and colleges trail their more affluent peers by an average of three A-Level grades when taking qualifications at this level.
This gap can be attributed largely to budget cuts on education
Underfunding is a primary concern for schools in the UK. According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS), school spending per pupil in England fell by 9% in real terms between 2009-10 and 2019-20, the largest cut in over 40 years.
Schools in more deprived areas fall into disrepair and often face pressure to downsize staff. A report published by Ofsted in February 2020 found that reducing the number of teaching assistants and teachers as well as cutting learning resources spending are the three most common responses to financial pressure in secondary schools. As a result of the reduced staff, teachers are asked to take on extra duties, from teaching additional subjects and providing lunchtime supervision to cleaning and other chores.
Schools with budget deficits are also left to decide what to keep and what to discard; very often valuable programmes such as art and support for children with special education needs are compromised. Class sizes keep growing and in more extreme cases school hours have to be reduced to save costs, with students being asked to come in late or go home early.
During the pandemic, school resources have been spread even thinner. Income from leasing out school facilities and venues has been lost and additional expenditures have been incurred on Covid essentials including PPE, cleaning supplies, signage and digital equipment.
EPI estimates that less than a third (31%) of the additional costs arising from the pandemic will be covered by the government’s support fund, with the shortfall amounting to around £40 per student nationwide. Over half (57%) of all schools are now using their reserves in order to meet Covid-related costs. Community support from donations to volunteering has become crucial to the operation of less advantaged schools.
Budget cuts aside, the shortage of qualified teachers has been an ongoing challenge. In a report released in September 2020, EPI found that secondary school teachers fell by 7% from 2007 to 2019, while pupil numbers remained the same and are expected to rise as much as 10% by 2023.
The shortage is particularly severe in disadvantaged schools and contributes to the widening gap between performances of underprivileged students and their more affluent peers. While 22% of schools in the most affluent areas report vacancies or temporarily-filled positions, this increases to 29% among schools in the most disadvantaged areas outside London. Inside London, almost half the schools (46%) in the most disadvantaged areas face the same problem.
Indeed, teacher shortages are particularly severe for inner-city schools and this is not only a matter of school budget. With students hailing from diverse cultures, religions and socioeconomic positions, extra care and support is needed, which often results in additional workload and stress for teachers. Teachers are often willing to teach at private schools for lower salaries because the job is easier given the smaller class sizes and students from less complicated backgrounds.
With higher pay available for graduates in jobs other than teaching, subjects such as maths, sciences and languages have seen the worst shortages of qualified teachers. As many as half of all teachers of these subjects leave the teaching profession after five years.
Everyone can help
There are many ways volunteers can help alleviate the burden of underfunded schools reopening after the Covid lockdowns, from taking up chores and supporting tasks to tutoring, mentoring and sharing useful knowledge that may not be commonly taught in the national curriculum. For the time-poor, commitment can be as little as one hour at a time.
Taking up chores and supporting tasks
Volunteers who can be physically present at the school, such as students’ parents, can help sanitise school facilities regularly, or help with small-scale maintenance to keep facilities in good working order. As teaching assistants are among the first resources to be compromised in underfunded schools, volunteers can free up teaching assistants’ valuable time for personalised student attention by helping with more logistical tasks in classroom activities and school events and outings.
Tutoring and mentorship
Every child has different talents, abilities and learning paces. Not every family is able to help their children catch up with schoolwork and this can be frustrating and demoralising for children encountering difficulties in learning. A study by Juniper Education found that very young and disadvantaged pupils’ learning is worst affected by the school closures caused by the pandemic. The percentage of Year 1 students achieving or exceeding expectations in reading, writing and maths fell by around a quarter between the autumn of 2019 and the summer of 2020. Numbers of Year 1 children with SEN working at the expected levels in maths and writing dropped by almost a third.
This is where volunteers can contribute either in person or through online presence. Tutoring either in small groups or on a one-on-one basis can help narrow the learning gap between disadvantaged learners and their peers. One can help children at this delicate age simply by listening to them read. By giving them time and attention volunteers can motivate them and help brush up their reading skills, which will in turn help with their learning in other fields.
For older students, mentors can provide guidance and support on various aspects of life. By pairing teenagers with adult ‘buddies’ and encouraging sharing and communication, common teenage problems can be detected at an early stage and appropriate support can be arranged by schools or social workers.
Sharing your knowledge – one hour at a time
During the pandemic much of our daily lives has shifted online and we cannot help but recognise the importance of technology in the future. This is, unfortunately, not always reflected sufficiently in the national curriculum. Despite the growing emphasis on STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education in recent years, qualified teachers and resources for these subjects are simply out of reach for disadvantaged schools.
By engaging volunteer teachers in various fields on an hourly basis, schools can fill in this gap and introduce students to a wider range of subjects that will help with preparing them for the future. From coding and robotics to mindfulness and personal finance as well as foreign languages and art, exposure to knowledge outside the regular curriculum can broaden the horizons and inspire children’s curiosity. It can also boost the confidence of underprivileged children who are behind in traditional academic subjects. 1HOUR is a volunteer organisation that fulfills this need. It makes it easy for individuals and corporations to contribute one hour at a time by matching them with schools in need and opportunities available. More details on volunteering are available on the 1HOUR blog.