So, what do you get up to in your free time at Oxford?” Relatives ask me, probably imagining something along the lines of rowing on the Isis, fine dining at formal hall, singing in the chapel or playing croquet. Quaint, old-fashioned, undeniably Oxbridge things. Though I have to admit, I do enjoy some – ok, most – of these things, when I think back on last term, it’s taking a coachload of kids and students on a trip to the Roald Dahl Museum that first springs to mind.
Not exactly sure what I’d expect while trawling around Freshers’ Fair, I had somehow managed to get involved in organising events for Jacari, a student-run charity providing free after school home teaching for over 200 local children who don’t speak English as their first language and are falling behind at school. As a treat for both the kids and volunteers, whose help can make a huge difference to a child’s self-esteem and school performance, we put on events: bowling trips, trips to see the new Harry Potter film, or, in this case, something a little more educational. It’s my responsibility to make sure they all have a good time.
It can be a stressful role, as I quickly discovered when 25 excited kids piled on to the coach. I’d been slightly apprehensive about the journey, so had games of ‘travel bingo’, a CD of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and a few bags of sweets at hand. Perhaps these all went down too well: the coach was filled with shrieks every time a yellow car or motorbike went past, and I was soon faced with constant demands for sweets from people who assured me that they were about to puke. When we finally arrived – I don’t think I quite understood before how many times it is possible to fit “Are we there yet?” into an hour long journey – I had my work cut out trying to stop the children from running around the museum. I caught one boy trying to lick chocolate from a remarkably realistic chocolate-bar door, and stopped another from walking off in what was supposedly Roald Dahl’s school uniform. By the time we got back to the coach I was as exhausted as they were.
Still, it was a great chance for those involved in Jacari to get together, and, judging from the grins on the kids’ faces as their teachers were forced to act out Dahl’s version of the Three Little Pigs, I think everyone enjoyed themselves. It was brilliant to see those who struggle so much at school completely throw themselves into a competition for the most imaginative ‘Story Ideas Book’, which all children are given on entrance to the museum. For the volunteers, it was a way to bond with their pupil outside their weekly lesson, as well as a perfect excuse to be a kid for the day – who wouldn’t enjoy writing a rude story in fridge magnets, or dressing up as Willy Wonka?
But for me, best of all was listening to volunteers and kids share their experiences of Jacari. I met Jean, who had brought four pupils on the trip (most volunteers are allocated one or two but sometimes siblings get jealous!) and told me that every lesson since the ‘Mad Hatter party’, they’d nagged her about when the next event would be. Another volunteer, Bekah, said that Jacari was “definitely the most interesting ‘outside’ thing” she’d done at Oxford so far. She raved about the chai tea and chapatis that greet her at her pupil Tahira’s house, and made me laugh by recalling a lesson in January when Tahira asked her politely whether she would like to come to her 7th birthday party on August 30th. Zaza, who has been a Jacari volunteer since 2009, said that almost every week her pupils ask her if she has any children herself, and, refusing to accept she has none, insist that she brings them over next time for them to play with. She added, “I think Jacari is brilliant, it’s so nice for the children to have an older role model to look up to and the rewards of being a tutor are definitely worth it.”
Jacari only asks its 175 volunteers, from both Oxford and Oxford Brookes Universities, to commit to one hour teaching each week, but many enjoy spending time with their pupil and family so much that they stay longer. Bekah had just come from making gingerbread with Tahira, and another volunteer warned me that he was running late for the trip because he’d been helping his pupil’s father fill in a form he’d had trouble understanding. For some of these families, many of whom are recent arrivals in the UK, having a native English speaker in the house – even if only for an hour or so – can be a real lifeline.
Of course, the teaching part is crucial: the whole point of Jacari is to try to do something about the fact that educational achievement of pupils who speak English as an additional language is consistently lower than their peers at all ages. The fact that there are over 150 kids on the waiting list speaks for itself: families and teachers really do value that one hour a week. In the words of one local schoolteacher, “The support and guidance the students provide to our pupils is invaluable. Our learners thrive under their support and always, always make better progress in their subjects as a consequence.”
But Jacari is about much more than just exam results. Families who are new to the area often tell us how much they appreciate simply having a friendly face to visit them each week. And the learning works both ways. Adrianne, who taught the Kamala family for a year, recalled, “As well as English practice and schoolwork, I taught them a few words of French and they taught me some Somali; I checked their timetables and they showed me how to hold their new baby brother… being a Jacari tutor made me see the real people behind the ‘immigration’ headlines.” Adrianne, like many volunteers, became good friends with the whole family, and found it hard to say goodbye when she left Oxford last year. Some of the friendships formed are lifelong – one Jacari alumni even invited her pupil and family to her wedding. As for me, I admit that sometimes while in the middle of an essay crisis I don’t especially feel like going to teach a sweet but very stubborn ten year old girl whose homework is often so full of spelling mistakes I don’t know where to start. But when I get there – when her twelve-year-old sister presents me with a huge plate of onion bhajis and gives me even more to take home with me – when I am asked to talk to her countless Pakistani relatives on Skype – when I finally get her to understand the point of a full stop – you can guarantee I’ll be smiling. I always leave in a much better mood than I was in an hour before.
The Oxford bubble can be fun, novel and exciting, but at times it is also stifling. Jacari is a chance to escape it for an hour or so and make a very real difference to the lives of families whose experience of Oxford is far from the stereotypes.