Pressure has been mounting on independent schools over the last few years to support the state sector more, and partnerships between the two are at a high. Many fee-paying schools have introduced initiatives to support local state schools and / or include more bright children whose parents cannot afford their fees.
We should now be considering what role independent school students can play in this increased focus on local communities. Volunteering isn’t a new concept to private school students, with many of those who take gap years travelling abroad to volunteer on projects as part of their travel plans.
However, with recent governments talking more about low social mobility and educational inequality, should independent school leavers consider volunteering in the UK, helping communities in need?
Independent school and Oxford University alumnus Duncan Hegan, 23, has recently finished a year of volunteering full-time at a school in London. Duncan, from Bangor, Northern Ireland, went to Fettes College in Edinburgh. He then studied law at Oxford followed by a law conversion course at the University of Law before realising that corporate law wasn’t for him.
“I applied for Teach First,” says Duncan. “I wanted to be a history teacher but was told that the scheme was oversubscribed that year. Someone there commended City Year UK – a youth social action charity which offers full-time volunteering opportunities in schools in disadvantaged communities – and after reading testimonials I decided to apply.
“My friends in Northern Ireland were surprised that I applied, that I could be charitable. I’m the only privately educated one in our group and to them I was the posh, elitist one. My family initially thought full-time volunteering would be a waste of time, but all this only made me more determined to do the scheme and make a difference.
“Volunteering full-time in a school is hard work. We were there from breakfast club to after-school clubs, providing a pastoral role as mentors, role models and tutors. I wasn’t emotionally prepared for the experience. I’d read about educational inequality and low social mobility but until you see it for yourself, you don’t really appreciate how it affects children.
“One of the immediate benefits of my volunteering experience was challenging stereotypes I’d built up from university. I also found myself stereotyped as the posh one, and after a few months one of my volunteering colleagues said to me, ‘if i’d met a person like you a few years ago I wouldn’t have got on with you because of your background.’
“In the longer term, my experience has made me grow up in ways I couldn’t have learned through academic courses or going abroad for a year. I’m better organised, a team player who is more in control of my emotions and so much more professional. All of the volunteers have to do public speaking as part of leadership training, and I was able to co-host City Year UK’s annual gala dinner, which was a fantastic opportunity.
“I’m now starting my Teach First course and I want to make a difference to children growing up in disadvantaged areas. I’d recommend any independent school leaver to take on the challenge of full-time volunteering. Voluntourism – going abroad to volunteer – is expensive and there are so many issues in the UK that we can tackle, and really make a difference.”