Whatever you might make of Michael Gove, he's set out a virtuous vision: "When you visit a school in England standards are so high all round that you should not be able to tell whether it's in the state sector or a fee paying independent." Unfortunately, as pointed out by Peter Wilby in the Guardian, wholesale replication of a public school like Marlborough College would require three times the number of teachers and half the English countryside, but before we burst Michael Gove's utopian bubble, shouldn't we give the subject more thought?
I believe that the Secretary of State for Education is right to be "ambitious for every child" and "ambitious for the system as a whole" but to make reality of the rhetoric he's going to need the combined commitment of the public, private and voluntary sectors. As the CEO of a charity, City Year UK, which reaches 10,000 children in schools in disadvantaged urban areas, I don't have all the answers but I might be able to provide a piece of the jigsaw.
Firstly, Mr Gove, I know how strongly you feel about history, particularly the 1st respect for "true British heroes". One-hundred years since one of the greatest ever volunteer drives, I'd like to introduce you to a new volunteer 'army' of heroes which is already making a difference to schools in some of the most deprived parts of London and Birmingham. Many (at 18-24 years old) are of a similar age to those who answered the call of King and Country in 1914, but that's where the comparison ends. I'm not talking about young people in military service but those who are offering voluntary service for a whole year in schools as role-models, mentors and tutors.
They are not a replacement for teachers or TAs but they bring a number of unique benefits which can ease the pressure on hard pressed school staff. One teacher even said: "I just honestly think City Year is the best thing that's happened to this school, as a matter of fact I said to the head teacher, if City Year doesn't come back, nor do I." You say that "more important than money is attitude - ambition, expectation - an ethos of excellence" and although officially classified as NEET (not in education, employment or training), the young people who join City Year, known as corps members, have all those characteristics in spades. They are, quite simply, inspirational. Don't take my word for it, this is what another teacher had to say on the role they play: 'You've got somebody...showing what they're achieving at a young age, behaving very responsibly, valuing learning, modelling good behaviour, politeness, enthusing the children, supporting and praising them, and this is also throughout the school, the playground, the dining hall.'
And, they can help with another job on your 'to do list'; behaviour. As near-peers, involved in every aspect of the school day, from first thing in the morning, until the last child leaves, they're not just extra adult eyes, but are able to build close (although always professional) relationships with students. An independent report by the Institute for Volunteering Research (IVR) said: "Students often reported that corps members had a greater understanding of them and their challenges, as well as more time to listen, something that could make them more receptive to learning, stating how it became fun and they wanted to do well." A secondary school pupil sums up the result: "If a City Year tells me to stop I will stop because if they were my friend I would do what they tell me as I respect them."
Moving on, a quick poll of our corps members found that many of the schools we operate in are already offering the extra-curricular activities that you want to see more of. A quarter of our volunteers said that at least 11 after-school clubs ran in their schools. Half of our volunteers run one to two of these clubs a week and nearly a quarter are involved in three to four. Commonly they're related to homework, citizenship, sports and arts and crafts but, building on the talents and passions of individual corps members, they also include chess, film, debating, drama, foreign languages and science. Most corps members tell us their clubs wouldn't run without City Year and 100 per cent believe that they bring benefits to pupils ranging from providing the opportunity to learn something new (88 per cent) to increasing confidence (66 per cent), developing team work (61 per cent) and building respect and empathy between classmates (56 per cent).
So Mr Gove, I hope I have been able to show you that 'school service', as a positive force rather than the punitive one you alluded to, has the potential to help pupils so much more than picking up litter.
Robert F Kennedy said: "Each time a person stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others....he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope...those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest wall of...resistance." We believe that it is through the cumulative effect of the contribution of many committed people, like our corps members, that we can all create lasting change; even to England's schools.