Pupils taking part in school charitable events has always been something to be applauded. Yet, whilst I recognise that lying in a bath of baked beans and raising money for, say, Comic Relief, is important, I’m not quite sure it gets to the heart of why schools should embrace charitable activities.
In my opinion, one central and key area of education – but perhaps a hard one to achieve – is to help young people develop a sense of empathy, a genuine feeling of support and understanding.
Most – but not all – pupils in our schools come from a privileged background and reside in a country in which, broadly speaking, opportunities and support are widespread. As such, I have always found that the best charitable initiatives in schools are where there is a personal relationship with the charity being supported; one that inculcates emotion and shows a precise reason for that backing. Plain clothes days, for example, although providing valuable financial income to many charities, lack that attachment offering real value, unless there is a very clear educational campaign supporting it.
Charity initiatives that come from within and are bottom-up ideas have the biggest impact. I can recall many where the momentum generated from a personal experience has been the catalyst to an extraordinary change in a school.
A swimathon, for instance, organised by a Year 9 boy when I was deputy head at Reading Blue Coat School. He wanted to raise money for his friend, who was very sick; it meant such a lot to him, to his friends and – over time – a large number of people at the school. Pupils became involved in the swimathon, raising money and awareness outside of school. It was the catalyst for other charitable work, with a small group of pupils getting involved in a WaterAid project.
More recently, and perhaps one of my proudest moments since becoming headmaster at Bournemouth Collegiate School, was when the whole school – close to 600 pupils and 100 staff – dressed as pirates and walked over 10km along the coast. This colossal organisational feat started with a few pupils asking if they could raise money for their friend and fellow pupil, who needed a new prosthetic leg. He had recently started rowing and needed a specialist prosthetic with a particular joint configuration.
The whole school knew why they were involved, what they were doing, and what impact it would have on one of their own. It was a poignant and powerful event, the young man at the centre of it all at times overwhelmed by the support of so many. Those around saw this impact for themselves. I genuinely believe that this charitable event, and the intimately personal reasons for it, changed my school for the better. Many pupils became more aware of their own situations, challenges and fortunes. For that day, the everyone paused and reflected and, consequently, we improved as a school.
So, let’s all continue to embrace charitable initiatives and ideas, but not with a focus on the financial gain, however worthy that might be. Instead, let’s focus on the impact it will have on those involved, how it will help them to grow as responsible, aware and sympathetic young people. If we do, charitable events will continue to provide extraordinary opportunities and positive changes within our schools.