News that an academy trust founded by the Conservative peer Lord James O’Shaughnessy is advertising for unpaid volunteers to fill key roles in its two primary schools was met with disbelief and dismay by teachers earlier this month. The Floreat Education Academies Trust is looking for full-time and part-time volunteers to fill the jobs of finance assistant, office administrator and personal assistant to the chief executive, Janet Hilary, who was paid £128,768 in 2018.
chief executive, Victoria Academies Trust, West Midlands
“No, schools shouldn’t rely on volunteers – although with funding levels at an all-time low, I can understand why school leaders are having to make such difficult decisions. We are at a cliff edge. There are more than 300,000 additional pupils in the system since 2015, the education services grant for academies has been scrapped to the tune of £600m, and almost a third of local authority secondary schools are in deficit. Not to mention the increase in pensions and national insurance contributions.
“That said, the solution to the problem seems obvious – fairer funding for schools so that heads won’t be forced to make such decisions.
“Ironically, of course, the role of the volunteer has been the bedrock of the school system for generations, whether it’s going on school trips, listening to children read, fundraising, or sitting on a governing body. You want your parents to volunteer because it’s also a way for you to engage with them and demonstrate that you value them.
“The issue here is that for the first time we are seeing this creeping into key strategic posts. This is a worrying trend that needs to stop as it undermines the work of those highly skilled and trained professionals that have been doing the job for years.
“There are issues then around confidentiality and safeguarding. It’s about public confidence as well – I could probably live with going to my dental surgery knowing some of the backroom posts are being covered by volunteers, but if my dentist or assistant was not being paid, I’d probably go elsewhere. Running schools is no different.”
parent volunteer at a state primary school in Cambridge
“Yes, I think schools absolutely need to rely on volunteers to do certain kinds of work. If the teacher spent her time listening to children reading, it would take her an entire day to hear each child read for just 10 minutes a week. Yet that’s nowhere near enough to improve children’s reading. So I think it’s good for parents to be involved. I have found it very rewarding, helping children who were struggling and seeing them improve.
“It wouldn’t bother me if my school advertised for a full-time volunteer to fill a key role. I think if a willing volunteer would do a good job and it would save the school money, why not? But at the same time, it’s not ideal. Volunteers can usually only commit to a small numbers of hours a week and I’d be concerned an unpaid worker wouldn’t be able to spend as much time doing the role as is needed.”
chair of trustees, Pride Multiple Academy Trust, Barnsley
“The simple answer is no. We are all aware funding is an issue, especially in small schools. But there are other options. Top of my list would be to look at staffing structure and collaboration with other schools. The board should ensure money is not wasted on top-heavy leadership. As for collaboration, this could mean sharing a business manager or even a headteacher.
“The pool of people you are going to attract to volunteer will be limited. These people will still need to be managed and trained in statutory responsibilities, such as safeguarding and confidentiality. Are you going to accept a lower level of performance from an administrator who is not paid compared to another in the school who is?”
headteacher, Maryland primary school, east London
“No. At Maryland, we use volunteers – parents and other family members – to enhance the experiences of our children, but not as free labour. To put volunteers in places to fill employment gaps, especially where there is a high level of skill needed, is misguided.
“Our volunteers are trained, supervised and treated as part of the school’s welfare team. We carefully select the activities we need them to support us with. For example, not just listening to children read but also reading to children, as this is very important for children whose first language is not English.
“The ‘elephant in the room’ is that funding for schools is diabolical and has been cut year on year. Clearly, anyone turning to unpaid volunteers to fill jobs that qualified people should be doing is desperate.
“We need to address the funding, not fill the gaps. Will volunteers eventually be teaching our children? That is the direction this country is going in.”