Victory to the allies

In a school playground in Hackney, east London, Tim Loughton zips up a bright red jacket against the cold morning air. Then the children’s minister commences a series of vigorous star jumps before shuffling urgently from side to side, as if his boots were on fire.

The idea behind this routine is to get lots of oxygen into the ministerial brain and ensure that it’s working at peak performance before what promises to be a long day. But also, more importantly, it’s to do the same for the brains of the children and young adults performing the same exercises — as they do every morning as part of an innovative educational scheme — beside him.

Briefly, the scheme involves pepping up schoolchildren, often from unpromising backgrounds, by inserting motivated young adults into classrooms to serve as mentors and role models. In the process of helping others during the course of a school year, the young adults are themselves transformed and prepared for a lifetime of employment. It’s a bit like sticking a lot of senior Scouts in class for a whole year, so that by doing lots of good turns, they win loads of badges.

And the cost to taxpayers is minimal because the young people are given only modest expenses and the scheme is underwritten by corporate sponsors. “I’m struggling to see a downside,” the minister says after his energetic morning investigating.

City Year London, a full-time volunteering scheme that operates at Sebright school in Hackney and several others in the capital, was set up two years ago. However, the City Year programme has been running in America for many years and has demonstrated impressive results in dozens of big cities there.

The scheme’s American origins become most obvious in the staff room when volunteers meet Loughton and Meg Hillier, the Labour and Co-operative MP for Hackney South and Shoreditch. They take turns to introduce themselves and say why they volunteered. Without fail they all begin by stating, “I proudly serve …”, which, though admirable in each case, acquires by repetition a slightly cultish quality. “This is a bit heavy for 8am,” the minister jokes.

But the benefits, for schools and volunteers alike, speak for themselves. And after 18 months it is already massively oversubscribed.

These benefits, says Janice Thomas, the head teacher at Sebright, go to volunteers as well as children. “Some of them last year were only 18 years old. It’s quite a shock to them to change from being students themselves to being one of the adults in school, with real responsibility. They have to uphold school behaviour policy and maybe tell children off sometimes. They also have to get here on time, and do a full day, which many won’t be used to.”

Some volunteers have to get up at 5am to get to east London from as far away as Slough in Berkshire and Guildford in Surrey. With after-school clubs to run, they don’t stop working until about 5pm. The workload — and high level of responsibility — is transformative. A volunteer from last year’s intake, who later landed a job with one of the scheme’s corporate sponsors, says that City Year had prepared him for work much more than anything he learnt at university.

The improving effect on both children and the young mentors is touchingly demonstrated in the playground when one volunteer, 23-year-old Zain ul Abadin, comes over to show me a sheaf of papers. These have been comprehensively and neatly inscribed with writing and mathematics by a schoolboy he mentors — a boy who until recently couldn’t write at all.

Like the other volunteers, Abadin has learnt to be voluble in dealing with children. One to one, however, he is measured and quietly spoken. But it’s impossible to miss his pride in the achievement of the boy he mentors. In fact, experiences such as this have caused him to rethink his future career. He has a master’s degree in economics and had intended to find a job in business after City Year. Now he thinks he may find a way to carry on working with children instead.

Several others feel the same and intend to become social workers, teachers, psychologists. Two or three still want to go into business but, whatever careers they choose, City Year may give them all an advantage over other jobseekers: of the young adults who were proud to serve at Sebright last year, 80% had lined up full-time jobs by the time the scheme ended.

This is not only due to their experiences in the classroom but also because on Fridays, away from school, they are mentored themselves by people who work for the scheme’s sponsors — which include Barclays Capital, National Grid, Timberland and Waitrose. They learn how to prepare CVs, to speak in public and more.

And the benefit for the sponsors?

“They see a measurable return on social capital,” says Sophie Livingstone, City Year’s chief executive — meaning that investing in the society where they do business can only increase their profits. “They also see this as a direct source of young people who have all the skills employers want.”

In the staff room, the minister asks volunteers to identify a downside. Well trained in bright enthusiasm, they seem reluctant to explore this. But one, Charlie Robinson, 24, admits feeling occasional disappointment when children don’t respond to him as he wishes.

That’s what happened with one particular boy, but Robinson talked to people at City Year — and to teachers. “They said: ‘These relationships take time.’ So I went home and did some research and found out more about what that particular boy was interested in — the solar system. And it worked. So instead of being demoralised, I was able to turn it into a positive.”

969 words. First published 5 February 2012. © Times Newspapers Ltd.