Volunteering at Whitefield School

A year ago, when I was busy talking to other seniors about games choices, I was told about volunteering at Whitfield School as part of Bancroft’s unique community service program. I’m probably the worst person in the year group in sport, so I leapt at this opportunity (not literally, see ‘worst person in the year group at sport’) as it meant missing a long afternoon of what I thought would have been an unholy mixture of humiliation and pain. Little did I realise that this spontaneous decision, vested in lazy self-preservation, would be one of the most enriching experiences of my life at Bancroft's so far.

I was unprepared on what to expect, but I reasoned that since I liked helping people, I had some experience of volunteering previously and I always end up befriending people, I wasn’t too concerned at first. Later on, having committed myself to Mrs Talbot, I was a little less assured. I didn’t want to let the children, teachers, the other volunteers or indeed Bancroft's down, so I thought I would do some background research, and everything I Googled about volunteering with special needs children only served to make me just that bit more apprehensive. Whitefield School, just down the road from us in Walthamstow, is the largest provider of special education in Europe, and was judged by Ofsted to be outstanding in every category on its last three inspections. There are three smaller schools within Whitefield, each one is targeting different needs. Each of these schools is about the same size as Bancroft's, which gives you an idea of just the sheer size of the school.

As it turned out there was little need to be nervous, as the school was used to settling in rookies such as myself and welcomed us with open arms. All the Bancroftians, about 10 of us, were quickly inducted into what was expected of us, and in my case I was assigned to a teacher who was really helpful in showing me the ropes. I worked within the Niels Chapman School where children have communication and interaction needs. This is a secondary school and so the pupils were only a little younger than myself; the pupils have a very wide range of abilities, with some on the autistic spectrum, or have other speech and language difficulties or hearing loss, resulting in associated behaviour difficulties. My duties included aiding my teacher, working with individuals and small target groups of pupils in my class who often have disciplinary issues, explaining concepts they may not have been fully understood. I also found myself unofficially teaching pupils ‘soft skills’ that they may not be taught on the curriculum. This would involve me providing assistance and advice to pupils about interaction with their peers, this being beneficial to pupils who are undergoing ‘integration’ into local secondary schools. As I was probably one of the only students in mainstream education that some children knew, I spent answering questions and dispelling rumours they may have heard about mainstream education, ranging from the somewhat innocuous to the absolutely bizarre (‘Do teachers visit our homes to check we are doing homework?’). I also ended up giving older pupils, who were capable enough to take GCSEs or other related vocational qualifications, some study skills and help regarding higher education and alternative routes to pursue, something we Bancroftians are lucky to be given but can take for granted given our comparatively privileged backgrounds. One more interesting thing I did was collecting newspapers and magazine articles every week to give to pupils interested in current affairs; Mrs Scott, one of our librarians, was especially helpful and let me take in the library’s copy of the week’s broadsheets.

At the risk of sounding preachy and holier than thou (so brace yourself)– Whitefield has really opened my eyes into how different children can be at a school can be just a stone's throw away from Bancroft's. Children the same age as us, and probably live in the same neighbourhoods as us but are just born with a slight difference that means that things we take for granted would need a lot of effort or maybe impossible for them to do. I learned about how wide the spectrum of disabilities can really be and how teachers and Whitefield deal with different needs. This year I’ve chosen to work at a different constituent school at Whitefield, the Margaret Brearley School, with children from all ages who have more complex needs; I’m still coming to terms with the work, their lives and indeed what I can do to make any kind of small difference to children who are so severely disadvantaged.

I certainly learned a lot about myself and others from my first year at Whitefield, and am sure I will continue to learn as long as I volunteer there. I would strongly recommend that others join us doing community service Whitefield as volunteers have much to gain as they offer the pupils. Finally, an apt quotation I would like to share with you is from Mahatma Gandhi, who wrote “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others”.