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Should We Pay Parents to Help Out in Their Children's Schools?

22/10/2015 13:53 BST | Updated 20/10/2016 10:12 BST

At a recent parent volunteer meeting I went to, the committee was complaining about being short of volunteers.

I can understand why: so many parents cringe at the word "PTA"( that's Parent Teacher Association, to the uninitiated). To them it's all about running around baking cakes, hunting down raffle prizes, answering emails, going to endless meetings and generally ending up as a martyr to the cause. Most off-putting of all is the idea of becoming one of 'those' clipboard-holding parents who constantly harasses others to help.

I'm sure most people have a story to tell about a run-in with the PTA. It's not unusual for tempers to fray when the same five or ten people slave away, while the rest of the parents pretend not to notice when the Christmas fair rotas go up at the classroom door. Many parents nowadays find it hard enough to cope with family and work demands without taking on running Santa's Grotto.

One of the classic excuses that comes up apparently is

"Sorry, I'd love to help, but I've got kids!"
Oh... okay then -- perhaps they should have asked a parent without kids?

Still, I was pretty surprised when someone suggested we'd have more luck getting parent helpers if we paid them.

At first I was appalled by the idea, but then I started thinking: charity workers are paid -- so why not parent volunteers? Was it really such a silly idea?

From my experience as MD of an education business, the main reason parents don't volunteer is lack of time. They worry that if they volunteer for one Halloween disco, they'll be roped into helping out every week. And with careers and family to think about, they're worried it will take over their life. If there was some cash on offer - even if just a nominal amount - they might not feel so aggrieved about giving up their free time.

But let's be realistic about it: the average PTA raises £8k a year for the added extras, like new play equipment, books for the library, or even minibuses - meaning there's not likely to be spare cash on offer to volunteers. And while it's an interesting idea, talk of paying parent volunteers distracts from the real issue - how to get more parents fired up about volunteering. How can we share the load amongst all parents, rather than leaving it to a handful?

Communication is key. The most successful PTAs are tech savvy and have systems in place to make things as easy as possible - both for the organisers and for the parent volunteers. They make use of online scheduling and project management tools to divvy up tasks, and avoid the constant emails pinging back and forth.

Taking it online also helps involve working parents who can't sign up at the classroom door, and would actually welcome the opportunity to rub shoulders with other parents.

The best PTA chairs I know are brilliant at selling the joy of volunteering to other people, and showing them what a difference their help makes. They're also inclusive -- discouraging a cliquey mindset, and bending over backwards to be open and welcoming to newbies at every stage.

They spell out what needs doing, and break it up into manageable pieces so it's easy for anyone to take on a little task. And there's safety in numbers -- the more people that volunteer, the more others join in, so it becomes really sociable and fun.

They dispel myths and fears about the PTA being an all-or-nothing gig. And they tap into what appeals -- helping parents feel good about doing a little, instead of guilty about not doing loads.

They also emphasise there's a stack of transferable skills to be picked up along the way -- great for anyone on a career break or looking for a change of direction. It's not just about baking cakes and blowing up balloons -- public speaking, project management, budgeting, selling, fundraising -- there's a ton of valuable experience to be had.

It's easy for people to write off school volunteers -- and particularly PTA members -- as stay-at-home-mums with nothing better to do, but in my experience nothing could be further from the truth. Most parent volunteers I know are juggling work and other volunteering commitments (like Scouts or Beavers), as well as raising a family. They are just passionate about helping their child's school improve, and creating a sense of community.

I don't believe money is the answer. In my experience, more people do volunteer if you make it easy for them. Chop up jobs into bite-size chunks and offer shorter rota slots. Let people see who else is helping and give them control over what they do.

Break down barriers to volunteering, and you'll get more people helping.... for free!

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