School canteens are quiet places these days, no longer a swarm of parents madly making sandwiches before the bell goes. So too the weekend sausage sizzle to raise money for the school camp. And as for P&C meetings, there are usually plenty of spare seats in the room.

Where have all the parents gone?

Julia M Cameron
According to reports, there is now struggle to get parents in the door and behind tills at barbeques and canteens. Image: Julia M Cameron.

Today’s school landscape is a vastly different one to that of decades ago when parents were more willing and more able to give up their time to assist busy teachers.

But as West Australian Council of State School Organisations (WACSSO) Perth North Senior Vice-President Jenny Blair says, there have been many changes.

“There have been legislative changes that have impacted incorporated bodies. Changes in what has been fundraised for, changes in how money has been fund raised. Changes to governance structures, constitutions etc.”

While there are no official figures on school-based volunteering in Australia, volunteering across the board has dropped significantly in the past decade.

According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, the rate of adult volunteering through organisations has declined from 36.2 per cent in 2010 to 28.8 per cent in 2019. Prior to 2010 there had been a steady increase in volunteering for about two decades.

Jenny Blair says many of the factors highlighted in volunteering studies are also valid for school P&Cs, though she says the number of P&C bodies across WA has been fairly steady.

A recent ABC feature cited ‘fundraising fatigue’ as a very real factor impacting parents and teachers at the nation’s public schools. Volunteers at schools are generally parents who can carve out small slices of time between work and family life, a task that’s become arguably more difficult in today’s dual-income, 24-7 society. As rewarding as volunteering can be, it takes away from both the family time and free time that many parents simply don’t want to give up anymore.

It’s created challenges for people like school volunteer Norman Gibbons, who says he often struggles to find people to help alongside him.  

“With a student population of around 400 plus, we have faced the all-common problem of having parents getting involved – mainly obtaining extra volunteers to help on sausage sizzles and at the canteen, including relying on them turning up on a regular basis,” he says.

“We have at times been very lucky to have other P&C members know other parents who were willing to help on special events like discs, sports carnivals and sausage sizzles.

“I have seen a wide variety of people over the 20 years on the P&C – some very good to work with, others lately who made life a wee bit uncomfortable.”

When children are in primary school, parents traditionally tend to be more involved in volunteering than in later years, but even this is dropping off. Now there is a constant struggle to even get parents in the door and behind tills at barbeques and canteens.

Former P&C president Helen Notis has been a volunteer for over 10 years. Her role has constantly been one of leadership, attempting to keep parents interested and enthusiastic through the uphill battle of the schooling years.

“As a parent, I started volunteering to be more involved with my children through primary school and be more connected with my children’s educational journey,” Helen says.

“I wanted to have a basic understanding on how schools operated and the dynamics of how the curriculum worked. So, I put my hand up at the first annual general meeting that I attended in 2006. All positions were declared vacant, so I put my hand up to be the president.

“As a president I had to lead by example and ensure that I was invested and involved in the school with fundraising.”

As children move on to high school, parents are not usually involved in the classroom. Adolescents feel more independent and have gone into an environment where they do not want their parents around. High school volunteering normally involves funding requests and community building, making it even more difficult to gain volunteers. The solution is usually effort-free levies collected by a P&C.

For people like Helen Notis, the challenge is to be more strategic in attracting parental involvement.

“I understand that not all parents were able to attend a monthly meeting, so they were given tasks at events and activities over the school year rather than attending a formal meeting,” she says.

“I enjoyed attending meetings as it allowed me to facilitate and coordinate events with other like-minded and dedicated parents.

“Throughout the primary school years, volunteers were very passionate and always willing to assist because they were always told why they were volunteering, where the moment was going and there was a purpose for our fundraising.”

Making busy people feel that their volunteered time is worthwhile and valued may well be the key thing modern schools need to focus on in today’s time-poor society.

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