Leader magazineASCL - Association of School and College Leaders

Make me a match

A team of people at an event

Finding the right volunteer projects for students isn't always plain sailing. Angela Spencer looks at one London college that linked up with an external 'matchmaker' to boost student choice and independence.

Six years ago Marcella O'Hare found her dream job. The former sociology and religious education teacher became the first full-time student development worker at Newham Sixth Form College in London.

A former member of the British judo team and one of the Newham's Volunteers who worked in support of London's Olympic bid, she had a keen interest in sport and community development.

The opportunity to take charge of coordinating volunteer projects and other extra-curricular programmes for the 2,500-student college was not to be missed.

"I know I have benefited immensely from volunteering and, like many secondary school teachers, I wanted to help open new personal development opportunities and responsibilities for 16 to 19 year-olds. Many of them have never been in a working environment and some have never moved outside the borough they live in," she says.

"I just went at it hammer and tongs, organising the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme, Young Enterprise, lunchtime clubs and volunteer programmes generally." Increasingly however, Marcella became frustrated at the lack of choice available.

"I had students queuing up for placements, but invariably I was only able to offer them our regular projects working in hospitals and schools. While the college had built strong links with these projects, I was constantly picking up leaflets and browsing the internet for new schemes students could get involved in.

"Also, I wanted to offer more variety in the type of placements - not just full-time work in college breaks, but evenings and weekends and perhaps short-term taster experiences, for those who feel less confident or for whom full-time involvement is too pressurised.

"Another creeping concern for me was that the application process, which basically involved students filling out a form and leaving it with me to sort out, was too protected and insular.

"I wanted students to be more involved in the selection process and be more aware of competing in an open market to win placements - something that would benefit them later in applying for jobs."

It was on one of these online research expeditions two years ago that Marcella came across WorldWide Volunteering (WWV), a non-profit organisation providing instant access to information about a vast range of volunteering opportunities throughout the UK and worldwide.

The perfect placement

The WWV database enables volunteers to build an on-screen profile of their ideal volunteer placement which is then matched against the requirements of over 1,300 organisations with more than 350,000 placements each year throughout the world.

The site offers a subscription service to schools, colleges, universities, careers and Connexions services, libraries and volunteer bureaus.

Marcella says: "I was interested in what WWV could do for us, but I was also cautious about bringing an outside agency into college. What struck me when I contacted them was how open and frank and professional they were.

What particularly appealed to Marcella was the organisation's approach to matching students with volunteering placements.

The college has a dedicated volunteering project manager, Josie Clarke. Each half term she takes laptops into the college so that students on lunchtime workshops can access the WWV website and do their own research on volunteering.

She also takes email addresses for everyone at the workshop - usually 20 to 30 students - and keeps in touch with them throughout their college course.

"The workshops are, for me, the single biggest benefit because they really raise awareness about volunteering generally," says Marcella.

"The website is quite sophisticated, so students gain ICT skills when they negotiate it and it gives them the chance to see what's out there, such as work in community centres, with specialist groups and on city farms.

"If they want to do something that isn't available, Josie has gone out to find it for them. In this way the students are actually helping to grow the number of volunteering opportunities themselves.

"Similarly, if students take a placement that proves to be unsuitable, Josie and I work together to address concerns and remove the project from the website if necessary.

"Some young people don't feel confident enough to take on a project in their first year, but the door is always open for them to take the next step when they are ready."

Less control

Students have the option of working through Marcella or going directly to Josie for help in getting a placement, or they even apply direct to volunteer projects through the website.

Says Marcella: "The downside of this is you do lose a little bit of the control, particularly where feedback is concerned. In working with an outside agency you have to be able to establish a strong team approach and good communication.

"Josie and I email each other constantly to keep in touch with what students are doing. Even then we do not get feedback from everyone, as we would like to.

"It would be helpful if we could devise an incentive for students and managers of the volunteer projects to come back to us with reports because we need this information to learn more about placements and guide us in the future."

Since linking up with WWV, Newham students have been involved in charity work in Ireland, volunteering for arthritis and leukaemia support groups, working with the Newham Volunteers, and one student went on a summer camp in Canada.

"Obviously age is a discerning factor where travel is concerned, but I'm hoping that older students taking gap years will be given the confidence to apply for volunteering on a more worldwide scale in the future," says Marcella.

In the last year more than 800 students have accessed volunteer programmes. Of the 200 students currently on projects, 100 have found their placements through WWV.

Marcella says: "The whole thing has cost the college just 90, which was the original fee last year for setting up our access to the website with our own centre number. WWV didn't charge us anything at all this year because of the high number of students participating. It's one of the cheapest resources I've come across."

This summer Marcella put together a college display board featuring photographs of volunteers taking part in the recent 100th anniversary of the Motor Show parade down Piccadilly Road.

"They had the most fantastic day, handing out flags and being hosts for the parade," she says. "Lots of the volunteers had never been into the City like that. They all had their lunch and travel provided and came home with free t-shirts.

"The display will be ready for students to see at the start of the new term in September. Along with the photos, it will simply pose the question: "What did you do this summer?"

Angela Spencer is a freelance writer who specialises in health and education issues.

Further information

For more information on volunteer opportunities through World Wide Volunteering, visit their website at www.wwv.org.uk

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