Volunteering holidays for school children

I remember challenging a friend of mine when she put a post on Facebook a few years ago about how proud she was that her twin 16 year old boys were going to help build an orphanage in Uganda for a month during their school holidays. They were trying to fundraise for the trip, thus the Facebook post, the target amount being £4000. Or £8000 for twins. With photos of Ugandan children being hugged by 17 year old Londoners just to get the message to really hit home, at first glance I thought they were raising money to help fund the orphanage. But it didn’t take long to realise that they were actually fundraising to pay for a holiday. A four week holiday in Uganda, ten days of which was to be spent helping paint a wall or two, giving an English class and playing football with local  children,  the rest was on safari, with six beach “chill out” days and, if we wanted to ‘fund raise’ for the optional extras, getting their PADI course and  summiting Mount Kenya. So, I chose not to ‘like’ and, in addition, made that ultimate faux pas of questioning it. Which, needless to say, didn’t go down well with the mum.

Photo Credit: See below
Photo Credit: See below

My challenges

My friend’s main argument was, at the end of the day, this was a fantastic experience for her boys. I couldn’t argue with that one.  And that the trip would, according to the travel company that sold the holiday through the school, get them 70 UCAS points (Universities and Colleges Admissions Service) for their university applications. I bit my lip, until recently, as my own son’s year group is about to be sold the same shenanigans. I am glad to say that he is old enough to agree with my challenges, as below, which still remain the same. If you agree with them, I ask that you spread the word to geography, science or heads of year teachers who are somehow buying into the notion that these are ethical holidays that make a difference to those on the ground, but also to other parents who might be considering handing over thousands of pounds. The choice is theirs of course, but perhaps just think outside the box a little before starting the cake sales:

  • How can it possibly benefit a small community in Uganda (or many other places that have projects waiting for 17 year olds to fix) having school children paint their walls, play football with the children and so on, when there are expert NGO’s there already working round the clock to break the poverty cycle?  As well as, in many cases, expert local and international adultwho are qualified to do the job. Or could be trained by experts to do so.
  • Would you want a group of unknown seventeen year olds coming into town to take over your children’s education and building projects without any sort of vetting or professional expertise? And then be hugged by them to be spread all over Instagram, #volunteer #love #awesome
  • Why are young people put under huge pressure to ‘fundraise’ for something that isn’t a charity? These are profit making holiday companies that throw a bit of community work into the package because ‘doing good’ sells.
  • Why would UCAS favour young people who have paid £4000 for some UCAS points? (see more below, but quick answer is – they don’t)
Photo Credit: See below
Photo Credit: See below

Mis-sold, mis-treated and mis-informed

What stands out for me, however, in the case of volunteering holidays that are being targeted at school children is that young people are being mis-sold, mis-treated and mis-informed. Mis-sold because the reality is that these aren’t ‘do good’ volunteering trips that are all about charity. They are holidays. With companies making a lot of profit out of them. Give even half of your fundraising directly to a grass roots charity on the ground, and see what they can do with it. They would build a lot more than a wall, or paint a classroom. Mis-treated, because education is competitive enough at 17, without young people being pressurized to raise £4000 to keep up with their friends. And mis-informed because these trips do NOT guarantee extra points towards university. In fact, having just embarked on our UCAS journey and university open days ourselves, not one of them said ‘you know what, go and build a wall in Africa for £4000, and the deal is sealed.’ What they do suggest, is get involved in your own local community, political or social justice groups – now that would be interesting. Oh, and study.

The UCAS point of view

To clarify, I spoke with UCAS about this issue of volunteering holidays being a way to gain university points. Ben Jordan, Senior Policy Executive at UCAS:

“Volunteering holidays in themselves do not attract UCAS Tariff points.  However, some volunteering programmes may offer an accredited qualification as part of it.  For example the ASDAN award is an accredited Level 3 qualification that can be delivered through such programmes. But, far away volunteering breaks aren’t the only way to achieve such a qualification and they can be delivered more locally.  It’s important to remember that although the above qualifications are recognised in skills development by some, not all universities will accept them as suitable for entry and not all institutions use the UCAS Tariff points system. Therefore it’s vital that students research the claims of such programmes properly and look into the requirements of the universities and courses they’re interested in.

What anyone applying to study should be aware of, is that universities take a wide range of factors into consideration when recruiting students. This includes grades, relevant experiences relating to their chosen course and their personal statement. Universities are also aware that it won’t be possible for all people to engage with such volunteering programmes, therefore no learner would be disadvantaged by not attending.”

The children who don’t have a choice

Most importantly, however, in this debate is that children being sold these holidays have a choice whether to go or not. The children who don’t have a choice are those in the destinations where our seventeen year olds are going to spend time. And this is where the companies that promote themselves as selling ethical school expeditions must really be held to account. Do they adhere to strict responsible tourism guidelines when it comes to working with young school children abroad? What child protection policies do they have in place? Do they seek qualifications or at least some experience from those people paying to volunteer if they are going to be teaching or caring for young people abroad? I contacted various expedition companies that target pre university young people to get their feedback on this subject, and to get more details on their ethical policies.  One example is Frontier – One of their projects is to work in a Cambodian orphanage, where on a two week volunteering holiday kids can “help take care of them (orphans) and give them the vital education they need for a better future.”, the highlights of the trip being, “Teach and care for fun-loving, orphaned children, earn your TEFL certificate absolutely free and assist in the operational running of the orphanage centre.” At date of publication, I had no reply or feedback from Frontier.  I am not a lone voice in this belief, however, with a lot of experts trying to get the message across about how volunteering in orphanages can actually have a damaging impact on children and their communities – despite whatever good intentions are involved. See Save the Children’s  excellent advice on the subject as well as responsibletravel.com. 

Photo Credit: See below
Photo Credit: See below

Ethical volunteering guidelines are a must

For a truly ethical volunteering holiday, ethical guidelines must be followed. You can see examples of these here on responsibletravel.com. In my view, a truly ethical volunteering holiday will place the needs of a community first. And although I know my seventeen year old would do his bit if he went to Uganda, I also know that he will not be making real difference to a child’s life there. Nor will he make a big difference to his university application.

My main hope with this blog is to spread the word among schools and school parents. Please question these £4000 trips. Demand transparency when you go to the sales talks. How much profit is being made from these trips? Can schools really justify this concept of ‘fund raising’ which is no more than a profit making exercise? Teachers and parents should question if they would want unqualified, unvetted people coming into their children’s school when they were four years old. They should ask the volunteering holiday companies about the details of their projects. How many walls are being built? When was the last wall built? Are there no builders that can be employed in Uganda or Peru? And, most importantly, and controversially, will the company vet and police check their children before going out there? Oh, and please post this on Facebook.

What can you do to help?

1)   Please share this article with your friends, family, teachers and colleagues on the hashtag  and, in particular with regards to the orphanages issue, use #StopOrphanTrips.

2)    Sign the Avaaz petition calling for travel operators to remove orphanage volunteering placements from their websites by the next Responsible Tourism day at WTM in London in November 2016. Don’t forget to share it and include the hashtag #StopOrphanTrips too

3)     If you’re a volunteer tourism operator who is happy to #StopOrphanTrips, then please contact volunteering@bettercarenetwork.org  – we’d love to highlight your support of the campaign.

Photo Credits: top to bottom, from Flickr Creative Commons , FrontierOfficial, Dylan Walters and International Disaster Volunteers








Once upon a time on the Wight

Glistening red apples... Copyright: Catherine Mack

Glistening red apples have always been symbolically tempting. Snow White was lured, they got Adam and Eve into big trouble, and in ancient Norse mythology they were seen as providing eternal youth. Whatever their powers, there are thousands of them here, lining the path to our gleaming white yurt, tucked away in a corner of this burgeoning  orchard, like a red carpet to a palace. Camping? Not as we know it, Jim.

We are met on arrival by Anthony, who co-owns The Really Green Holiday Company with his partner Alison, creating this glamping gem on land they lease from Afton Park Orchard.  He leads us down the red carpet to our yurt, and opens the wooden door into our ongoing storybook world. Because a yurt resembles a theatrical space, with its raised wooden floor, perfectly lit by natural light seeping in through the (covered), transparent hole in the ceiling, its canvas backdrop stretched over a circular frame, almost resembling a model of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre itself.

These yurts have been beautifully furnished with recycled antiques and bric a brac. But most important for glampers, there are beds. Proper beds. An old mahogany frame for us, and a double futon for our two boys. After endless ‘normal’ camping breaks, our two boys, aged seven and ten, can’t resist a bit of bouncing. “They’re real mattresses, Mum!”  Not air, not army, not yoga, and just to add to the five star-ness of it all, there are crisp (and ironed, I notice) white sheets and eiderdowns to make our cocoons exquisitely cosy.

Copyright: Catherine Mack

Although I am a lover of real camping, wild camping even, I must admit that this bit of luxury is like a naughty, but more than nice, treat. Indeed, it feels almost opulent putting a match to the yurt’s preset stove, creating a homely atmosphere which is nigh on impossible in our tent. After leaving us to bask in the gorgeous glow of it all for a while, Anthony then shows us the inner workings of the campsite. Unlike most campsites, there is lots of room between us and our neighbours (although we are close enough for me to spot that they have a four poster bed in their palace). There is a proper solid table and chairs outside the yurt, and a cleverly designed brazier cum barbecue for cooking, or just keeping us warm. There is an ample supply of wood, all from sustainable island sources, and constantly stocked up by Anthony and Alison.

However, glam is quickly upstaged by green, as we continue to explore. There may be sheets and stoves, but if you are looking for shower blocks and sockets, that is where the luxury ends. Like so many places I have already visited on the island, and one of the main reasons I keep coming back for more and more, The Really Green Holiday Company does exactly what it says on the tin. First of all, this is a precious working orchard, with 150 trees to be nurtured, and also, this stunning coastal area of the western end of the island is protected, officially known as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. Consequently, the orchard is totally off-grid.  No electricity, gas, sewers, or mains water (although there is a little onsite water, just in limited supplies).

The loos are compost, and function with a brilliant barrel system, which is turned regularly to speed up the composting action. Using the loo is far from glam and takes a bit of getting used to, but the kids are totally enthralled as Anthony explains how they work. With steps up to their wooden huts, they remind me of the Granddad in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, who gets carried up into the air while going through the motions in his wooden hut; “Maybe that’s why they called it ‘Chitty’ Mum,“ my younger son announces loudly to the amusement of all the nearby happy campers.

The shower is also pure and simple, powered by solar and, when the sun lets you down, there is a wood burner underneath to get the water sizzling again. The grey water from the shower goes into barrels, then used for watering the trees around us. There are buckets of water to wash hands, using rainwater from butts, and eco-friendly products everywhere to protect the immediate environs.

Copyright: Catherine Mack

The campsite revolves around a communal dome tent, used for cooking and eating when it gets wet. There are some Calor Gas cookers, and flasks full of hot water for a quick coffee to get the sand out of the eyes in the morning. Just as Anthony is showing us the workings of the dome, the clouds over Freshwater open like they haven’t all summer. We all look up as the dome roof lifts into one big arc, a gale force kicking in with wild abandon. Anthony looks at the water seeping in under foot, totally unperturbed. A little more concerned, wondering if our storybook adventure is about to segue into an Oz-like tornado, we excuse ourselves and rush back to the safety of our yurt. With the comfort of the wood burning stove, cuddled up under duvets, we stare up through the now black hole at the clouds swooping in like the wicked witch herself, spookily backlit by the moon.  The canvas is shaking, and the apple tree branches cast shadows everywhere. However, after a few marshmallows toasted over the fire, and hot chocolate heated on the stove, all is good in the land of yurt, soon transformed to a sumptuous land of nod.

Morning comes and, as if following a script, the sun is shining, skies are blue, and the dome tent is still there. Anthony is up a ladder mending a couple of tears, the kettle is on, and people gather round the dome to compare storm survival notes. I couldn’t help thinking of some of the clifftop campers nearby, some of whom must have had to pack up in the middle of the night, and take refuge in cars. Glamping is stormproof, that’s for sure.

After a typically slow start to the day, one of the best things about camping in my view, we stroll down toFreshwaterBay, just a ten minute walk through woodland. The waves are still too high for swimming with the boys, despite clearer skies, and gentle paddling leads to general drenching. We head back to the yurt to dry off and for lunch, and shopping is made easy with the onsite Afton Park Farm Shop. Within a few minutes we  stock up with chicken fillets, mushrooms, crème fraiche and onions, all from local farms. I realise that we are now becoming galloping, glamping gourmets. None of your baked beans here.

Paul and Michaela Heathcote, who own this fab farm shop and orchard, are also rare breed specialists and have de-camped a few favourites from their nearby farm to graze in the field beside the orchard. Even the animals are posh here, I think, such as Mayzie, an Irish moiled calf, one of only 400 females left worldwide, and Matt, a Wensleydale sheep, of which there are only a thousand left worldwide. Don’t get too attached though, as some of their relatives are available in the shop, and you won’t taste a better sausage on the barbeque than theirs. Combined with their new co-venture, whereby their café is transformed into a superb evening restaurant, run by a budding local chef, AftonPark has to be one of the most impressive examples of rural diversification I have come across on my travels.

Superb lunch at Briddlesford Farm Bluebells cafe, isle of Wightmy travels.

We finish our stay at the yurts with just one more bit of magic, taking place, rather aptly, up a tree. But this time, an ancient oak tree. Anthony recommends an outing with Goodleaf, a local recreational treeclimbing company. Over a period of two and a half hours, trained arborist Paul McCathie, teaches us how to use harnesses, carabiners, ropes and knots, as well as climbing and abseiling techniques, and then leads us gently up into the branches of a sixty foot oak. My sons dance like nymphs from branch to branch, while I slowly heave my way feeling more like the giant trying to get back up the beanstalk. When I reach my first big branch I dare to look down at Paul smiling below, breathe in the smell of the branches, and realise that I haven’t contemplated a fear of heights for a second. There is something about the slow pace of climbing this magnificent natural structure, which helps conquer your fears, and its canopy. And in terms of thrills, my kids say it beats any roller coaster ride.

This exhilarating treeclimbing experience is undoubtedly the perfect closing chapter to our storybook weekend, which draws to a close much quicker than we want it to. However, as we close the door for our last night under the stars, and lie down to take in the ever-changing night sky drifting over our heads, we vow to come again, and raise our hot chocolates in a mutual toast to glamping happily ever after.

For more details of the yurts at Freshwater Bay, see www.thereallygreenholidaycompany.com, weekend hire from £220. For details of the orchard, farm shop and restaurant, see www.aftonpark.co.uk.

 Five things for glampers to gloat over on the Isle of Wight:

  • Isle of Wight Sea KayakingShimmy in off the beach at Freshwater Bay, straight into the waves and around the coast, depending
    Catherine and children sea Kayaking in Freshwater Bay Photo: Catherine Mack

    on your ability, confidence, and the weather. With a bit of experience you can take trips to caves, sea stacks, off-shore Napoleonic forts and otherwise inaccessible beaches. Fantastic family half day offers from £45.

  • Walk the Coastal Path – With just over 100kms of brilliantly maintained coastal walking paths, this has to be the best way to discover the island. For details of all walking routes, as well as the annual Isle of Wight Walking Festival in May, www.islandbreaks.co.uk have great maps of each route, and, very cool indeed, details of companies which offer a bargain bag collection service to move your bags from one accommodation to another as you head there by foot.
  • From field to fork – You will have the perfect glamping experience if you stock up your barbeque with some of the superb range of the island’s local produce by seeking out some of the local farm shops. My favourites include Bluebells at Briddlesford Farm, Wooton, which also has a superb restaurant, Kings Manor Farm, and of course, The Garlic Farm, near Newchurch. Or even more impressive, order in advance to be delivered to your yurt, with inspired local food delivery company, The Real Island Food Company.
  • Robin Hill Countryside Adventure Park, which successfully combines a fun park and rides to suit all ages, with 35 hectares of
    Catherine's husband and son treeclimbing with Goodleaf Copyright: Catherine Mack

    countryside, including nature trails, sculpture parks and falconry displays.

  • Goodleaf Tree Climbing – For the best ever trip to the treetops with expert recreational treeclimber Paul McCathie. A two and a half hour climbing experience costs £25 for children and £35 for adults, including equipment, tuition and tea and cakes.  This very green company also offers 5% discount to anyone arriving by public transport, pushbike or foot
  • For up to date information on all things cool and green on the Isle of Wight check out my favourite blogs, My Isle of Wight, and Ventnor Blog.This article was first published in Island Visitor Magazine, Summer 2011


Coastal walk Steephill Cove into Ventnor, approaching Ventnor Copyright: Catherine Mack