Children's centre volunteers extend services

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More than 85 per cent of children's centres are currently using volunteers to help run services, according to a new report.

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The survey of 181 children's centres across the UK by charities Family Lives and 4Children reveals that volunteering in children's centres is widespread, with centres typically having three or more volunteers engaged in different activities at one time.

On average, volunteers work for four hours per week, and the majority (88 per cent) participate for at least six months, with 38 per cent staying for a year or more. Volunteers are typically parents who are using or have used the centre's services or students on placements or work experience.

According to the report, 'Volunteering in Children's Centres', the majority of volunteers (83 per cent) help with stay-and-play sessions or groups (79 per cent). Around 71 per cent are on governance/parent's boards, 49 per cent provide administrative support and 27 per cent help run the nursery. (See bar chart.)

The least popular activity that volunteers are engaged in is peer-led parenting or relationship support, with only three of the centres surveyed claiming to use their volunteers in this way.

The report, which forms part of Family Lives' 'Instructions not Included', a campaign to help families overcome barriers to support, also reveals that more than 73 per cent of children's centres using volunteers have a volunteer management policy in place. Additionally, nearly all of the centres have management policies which cover safeguarding, measures to protect confidentiality, support and supervision.

The majority of children's centres deliver training for volunteers in-house, but only a quarter have accredited training programmes.

When asked about additional training needs, more than two-thirds of children's centres said they would like more information on case studies and the latest evidence of what works when supporting volunteers. Just over half of centres claimed they would like more practical support such as advice on training.

Findings from the survey show that using volunteers can have a range of benefits for both the centre and the volunteers themselves.

Over half of children's centre managers surveyed stated that the use of volunteers increased the cost-effectiveness of running their centre, and over a third said having volunteers enabled them to offer a wider range of services.

They also said that doing voluntary work in a children's centre was helpful for those wanting to gain workplace skills and experience.

The Family Lives and 4Children report makes a number of key recommendations to increase the involvement of the voluntary and community sector in children's centres including:

  • the Government should engage the voluntary sector to provide resources and training for volunteers to provide parenting and relationship support;
  • children's centres should consider prioritising making provisions for volunteers to undergo accredited training programmes to drive up standards, which should be backed by Government in line with its national focus on increasing volunteering and getting people back to work;
  • facilitating the sharing of good practice in volunteering among the voluntary sector with 'information hubs' developed by Government in partnership with the voluntary sector.

Jeremy Todd, chief executive of Family Lives, said, 'Volunteers are becoming integral to service delivery in children's centres.

'This is welcome as volunteers can help children's centres understand the needs of their local communities and provide additional services that would not be available without their expertise.

'However, it is vital that these volunteers - particularly those that befriend or work with families individually - are trained thoroughly.'

Case Study: Ravensthorpe Children's Centre, Dewsbury, West Yorkshire

Nazreen Akhtar started volunteering at the children's centre run by Action for Children after her family support worker introduced her to the setting and now has a permanent job there.

She explains, 'My family support worker suggested I go to my local Sure Start Centre after I developed post-natal depression more than two years ago after my baby was stillborn and my four-and-a-half-year-old daughter and I started to grow apart.

'I took my daughter to the centre and attended some of the groups including the Cook and Eat courses the centre runs, which is when I got interested in volunteering.'

After helping to run the cookery courses as a volunteer, Ms Akhtar was encouraged to apply for the position of cookery tutor when a permanent position came up last September.

Thanks to the experience she gained as a volunteer, she was offered the job and now teaches parents how to cook healthy meals at the centre and at schools in the area.

Ms Akhtar says that volunteering at the centre has helped her overcome post-natal depression, develop a closer bond with her daughter and give her more confidence.

'I can't thank Sure Start and Action for Children enough for what they have done for me. If I hadn't volunteered, I would never have known about the position.'

Liz Armitage works as a volunteer/food co-ordinator across Action for Children's five children's centres in Dewsbury.

The centres have used volunteers for more than five years and currently have 22 active volunteers working across the five settings.

'We have volunteers who help in group sessions, do the gardening, work on reception, and one dad who runs a dad's group. The recruitment process for a volunteer includes a CRB check, health check and induction. Volunteers are paired with a mentor and receive the same training as paid staff.

'People want to do volunteering at the children's centres, as it helps them get back into work. The centres have regular recruitment drives.

'Last September four volunteers were taken on as permanent paid staff, and seven gained employment outside the centres.'

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