Volunteering at school helps children, so why do so few parents put their hands up?

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It’s a familiar PTA complaint. Less than five per cent of parents take on the lion’s share of volunteering duties at school and fewer than 15% regularly dip their toes in the volunteer pool, according to our latest data

Volunteering matters – not just to raise funds to fix the water fountain or replenish stationary supplies. When parents are involved in school, it becomes a happier place. Children realise their parents are interested in their education. They learn the value of being part of a community. Parents get an insight into life in the classroom and forge stronger relationships with the teachers. 

There’s more: savvy parents latch on to the value of their own ‘social capital’ early. They understand what they must do to help their children excel and that is to give and receive favours. Children of parents with strong social capital enjoy increased job prospects – it’s the ‘old school network’ brought to life for everybody.

Schools which actively work to increase connections between parents and improve information sharing increase social capital for the whole community. 

Dixie Stafford, Chair of the Parent Association at St Albans High School for Girls,Hertfordshire, said: “When parents feel connected to each other and new parents are warmly welcomed into the group, they will tend, over time, to put more into the school. This can be in a range of ways: volunteering in the classroom; helping to run mock interviews for sixth formers; managing lost property; organising second-hand school uniform sales and, importantly, supporting fundraising initiatives to benefit the school.”

Lessons from Australia

The requirement to volunteer 10 hours in many Australian schools shows us we have a lot to learn here in the UK. With school funding in many western countries reaching crisis levels, head teachers are turning to parents to provide more financial support, even asking outright for donations. There’s a price to pay for this shift from consumer to customer: as parents are asked to contribute, they are becoming more demanding. When parents volunteer their time, heads are less likely to have to ask parents for donations. 

Australian-born Susan Burton, Founder of Classlist, said: “In Australian schools, they ask parents to commit to ten hours of volunteering each year. They make this a social norm of being part of the community. They ask how they might contribute, whether it is manning a stall at the Christmas Fair, picking up rubbish after a fireworks event, or washing up after a new parents’ welcome coffee.

“You could mandate volunteering in the UK, but there are subtler ways to nudge parents to get involved. Work with the school to draw up a long list of volunteering opportunities. Each year, ask each parent to consider donating just 10 hours of their time to their chosen tasks. We’ve found that 28% of common volunteering duties can be done remotely, so it’s not a huge ask.” 

Volunteering value of the task and ask

Consider the value of the task. Parents are busy – incredibly so, with 72.5% of families having both adults in work. Work pressures mean parents don’t have the time to build a supportive network. Parenting expectations have risen, adding more tasks for parents after a full day’s work. 

  • A recent survey conducted by Classlist found that 50% of parents spend two hours a day ferrying their child to after-school activities and 10% of parents spend more than three hours daily. 

Susan said: “You might find there’s little appetite for the cake sale, which commonly sees volunteers spending £100 on ingredients only to raise £30 funds. Parents know this and they don’t want to waste their time or money, even if it does create a fun experience for the children. Choose your fundraising events strategically, focusing on those that bring in the most money for the least effort. Your parents will thank you.”

Another missed trick is in the branding. Schools lose out on potential volunteers because they focus on the task rather than the reason for the task. Simply flipping the wording – ‘We’re raising £5,000 to replace the broken monkey bars’, rather than, ‘We’re having a cake sale,’ will increase engagement levels.

Incremental asks

Susan said: “The most effective way to draw parents into your volunteer pool is through incremental asks. The more one-off tasks a parent undertakes, the more likely they are to become emotionally connected and volunteer their time on a more involved basis.”

Keynote speaker and communication training expert Jodi Glickman from Great on the Job, suggests there are three steps to ask for a favour.

  • Set the stage by telling the person directly and honestly that you’re asking for a favour. Be polite and avoid clouding your message by grovelling. 
  • Give a reason, so you’re not demanding without context. Present the positive outcome, for example, if we have an eye-catching advert for the Christmas fair, more people will come and we’ll raise more money for the sports centre. 
  • Provide an escape clause, making it absolutely clear that the person is welcome to say no. Be willing to accept defeat and try someone else.

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