Yesterday came the grand launch of David Cameron’s national citizen service scheme. The fact that the Conservatives are so solidly behind the principle of national community service for young people – an idea that has sparked cross-party interest – should be welcomed. It is fantastic that a positive scheme for young people looks set to be centre stage in the party manifestos, and in this election campaign. But there is a danger that politicians’ desire for easily-communicable manifesto ideas will lead to dumbing-down of policy in this area.
The Conservatives have, to some extent, fallen into this trap. Scratch below the surface of their proposals, and some tensions emerge. Youth citizen service is often talked about in terms of the benefits to young people’s skills, and to the communities in which they serve. There is evidence that participating in service schemes can boost the ‘soft’ skills so valued by today’s employers – like motivation, sticking power, team work and communication.
However, this evidence comes from schemes that are an integrated and ongoing part of young people’s school education – or are undertaken as a ‘gap year’ scheme after school or university. There are questions about whether the post-GCSE summer scheme proposed by the Conservatives will really be able to deliver benefits on the same scale for young people – and about the extent of the benefits a month of social action projects in August will deliver for society itself. The kinds of projects that can really benefit communities – like mentoring children from disadvantaged backgrounds, supporting older people with needs, and environmental projects – are activities that need to happen year-round, not just in the summer holidays.
There are also real tensions between these proposals and Cameron’s Big Society vision, which is supposed to be about devolving more responsibility to the voluntary and community sectors. The notion that it should be charities, rather than the state, delivering the Conservative scheme is welcome – and echoes Labour’s reliance on the voluntary sector to deliver on the youth volunteering agenda. But the structure of the scheme charities will be expected to deliver is incredibly prescriptive – down to specifying what young people should be doing day-by-day in some weeks. A legitimate question many charities working with young people might have is why should they have to stick to this structure if their experience is that alternative models might work better?
Given the level of prescription, it is fair to ask how well-designed the scheme is in terms of catering for a cohort of young people with incredibly diverse needs, skills and abilities. For example, will a scheme so heavily predicated on a ‘physical challenge’ in the first week be able to cater for young people with physical disabilities? Of course, one of the benefits of the proposal is to mix young people with different skills and experiences from different walks of life. But in order to do that successfully there may well need to be more flexibility for youth organisations delivering service schemes than envisaged in the proposal.
As we argued in a recent Demos report on citizen service, service needs to be something that is part of our national culture, and which is seen as something to take part in not just for two months over the summer, but over the life course. The Conservative proposals hint at that – there are provisions for university students and local businesspeople to be involved in the scheme as mentors. But a citizen service scheme needs to go further than that. It should include opportunities for children and young people to learn about service and take part in social action projects while they’re still at school – something the citizenship curriculum hasn’t been universally successful at doing. And it should involve structured service opportunities for young people that fit in with their lives – like service NVQs for young people in 16-18 education, service schemes for 16-25 jobseekers as part of their training for work, and gap-year style schemes like those being piloted in the UK by organisations like CityYear and V.
If adults are going to expect young people to ‘give something back’, service also needs to be something everyone should be willing to embrace. A service scheme should therefore involve the rest of the population not just as mentors for young people, but in opportunities to volunteer themselves. For example, SeniorCorps in the US is an excellent example of a service programme that opens up opportunities for retirees to contribute through providing care to other older people, and working with children in the community.
Will Labour fall into the same trap? Gordon Brown has to date been much vaguer about government plans for national service. Underpinning his ambition that all young people should do 50 hours of community service by the age of 19 have been recent pilots of volunteering opportunities for 14-16 year olds, and for young people who are unemployed. These are laudable, but they certainly don’t add up to national citizen service. Will there be something more ambitious in the Labour manifesto? Watch this space.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.