Closing the gap through youth social action

Youth full-time social action. I’ll hazard a guess that this phrase means very little to you.

How about ‘national service’? Now I imagine that may have made something inside you squirm - even if it’s just a little. I'm not surprised, national service is a tainted phrase in the UK. It conjures images of young people coerced into military service at home and abroad, going out on uniformed parades etc. A relic of the past and perhaps - depending on who you talk to - rightly so.
But what if it wasn’t tainted? What if national service was something that young people chose to do voluntarily in their tens of thousands every year? What if, instead of serving in barracks, these young people were serving in:

●     schools

●     hospitals

●     homeless shelters

●     national parks

●     care homes

Well this has already been achieved in countries like the USA, France and Germany and more. These countries have Government-backed voluntary national service programmes that attract up to 100,000 participants per year.

So why, as a member of the FEA, should you care a lot about any of this? How is this going to help us achieve our impact goals?

Well, picture what a programme like this could do for education in the UK. Picture some 10,000 young people per year dedicating a whole academic year, full-time, to ensure that:

●     young people from disadvantaged background don’t fall behind at pre-school, primary and secondary school

●     young people from disadvantaged backgrounds are helped to get into university

●     some of the country’s best and brightest graduates go into teaching in areas of high disadvantage.

And at the same time as serving, these volunteers would build their own skills, character, and emotional wellbeing through real-world work experience, meaning they can transition into work, training or education after they’ve finished their programmes.

Call it what you like - ‘national service’, ‘National Citizen Service Gold’, ‘youth full-time social action’ - call it Brian for all I care! The name really isn’t all that important right now. What is important, is that it sounds to me like such a programme would go a long way to helping us meet all five FEA impact goals.

Can a programme like this be built in the UK? Looking at the AmeriCorps system in the USA, it’s obvious to us at City Year UK that it can. And we should know, our parent organisation is one of the founding partners of this programme in the USA - pushing President Bill Clinton to set up this ‘national service’ programme in 1993. Owing to this Governmental backing, last year City Year US utilised 3,000 full-time volunteers to close the attainment gap in primary and secondary schools, supporting 200,000 pupils. Along with organisations like Citizen Schools, College Possible, Jump Start and Teach for America, City Year makes up a varied mosaic of education-focused national service in the US.

And one aspect of AmeriCorps I find very interesting, particularly in light of the fact that at home we are in the middle of a charged debate on the future of tuition fees, is an initiative called ‘The Segal Education Award’ (or as it’s more catchily known ‘Give a year, get a year’). This award offers alumni of AmeriCorps programmes around $6000-7000 off their future or existing tuition fee debt, in return for them having served their country. Now there’s some food for thought...

The good news? The UK already has the green-shoots f these programmes. Young people are serving their country in this way through organisations like ours in education and in other sectors such as conservation, homelessness, health and social care. But because there hasn't been any Government support for participants and host organisations, instead of 100,000 participants, we can barely muster 1000.

This could be about to change. A Government-commissioned independent review, chaired by former CEO of National Grid Steve Holliday, has called for the Government, as well as business and education sectors to better support full-time social action in this country. And he’s gone further, he and his panel have called for a Government-backed pilot programme.

We NEED your support to turn rhetoric into reality and get this pilot off the ground. We are planning to send a letter to the Prime Minister and Minister of Civil Society calling on them to act on the recommendations of Steve Holliday’s Review and create this pilot. All I ask for now is that if you’re interested in any of the above, get in touch as I’d be delighted to talk to you about it in more detail.

It’s only if we are able to show a united front, that something this ambitious can ever get off the ground. We would love to have your support.

Leo Watson

Public Affairs and Communications Manager, City Year UK