“Oi! Wuffles! Why are you backing conscription to allow neo-cons to send the children of poor people off to fight the oppressive wars of the capitalist imperialists??!?!”
The principle of a fully funded and paid for ‘citizenship service’ is something I’ve been in favour of for over a decade. Opponents of the principle have sound grounds for their positions – connotations with the former national service to the idea that so long as citizens are not breaking the law, the state should have no say in what people do and do not do.
In terms of compulsion, I’m can be persuaded either way. However, when it comes to university, I’m moved towards making the completion of a six-nine months citizenship programme being a condition of enrolling. The Government already has pilots ready for 2012 under the national citizen service brand (also on Facebook) but this one is aimed at 16 year olds/year 11 rather than at the wider population.
What would “national citizenship service?” look like?
In this world, it’s dangerous to be over-prescriptive. That said, there are a number of common elements that such a programme could contain, such as:
- Residential time away
- Working with a core group of people over the course of the programme
- Being paid a living wage while on the programme
- Having a fund-raising element of the programme
- Developing and delivering a community-based project as part of the programme
- Learning new (practical) skills
- Aimed mainly at school leavers but being open to anyone of any age
Such programmes need not be run by the state. There are a number of organisations that already run similar courses and programmes such as the Prince’s Trust’s Team Programme. As I’ve mentioned before, I completed this programme just over six months before joining the civil service. My three months with the Prince’s Trust were three of the hardest months of my life – university was a walk in the park in comparison.
What problems would such a programme help solve?
- The widespread implementation – a truly ‘national’ programme would help break down some of the social barriers that are inevitably placed between children at an early age. Faith-based and/or fee-paying schools are examples of children being segregated because of something associated with their parents – i.e. their faith or income.
- It would give people – especially those who otherwise do not or cannot leave the area they are from to have time away, without having to worry about the costs.
- Assuming a programme was open to all ages, it would give those who have otherwise only experienced daily life with people of their own ages the experience of working with people who may have had far greater and more diverse life experiences than they have had.
- It would allow people to learn skills that they may otherwise not learn in school. For example I never did anything involving say motor engineering – my experiences of ‘craft design and technology’ being laughable.
Given the length of time such a programme would entail, it would also mean young people would have to take a break from full-time education – breaking the link between A-levels and university. One early conversation that I had with the parents of one of the few people from university I’ve stayed in (vague) contact with was on making ‘gap years’ compulsory. The reason for arguing in favour of them was to break the mindset that university was ‘the next thing to go onto after A-levels’ – i.e. an automatic rather than a conscious decision. Since that conversation over a decade ago (where I used the term ‘year out’ rather than ‘gap year’ at the time) we’ve witnessed the rise in the ‘gap yah stereotype’ – nice but dim posh kids travelling around the world on a drink-and-drugs-fuelled party, to the risks of well-meaning young people being ripped off on charitable projects. The hike in tuition fees to eye-watering levels (See my take here on how politicians moved us from grants to huge fees with little consent in less than 15 years) has – I think, broken the link of university being ‘the next thing to do’, simply because of the debts incurred under the new setup.
Should such programmes be compulsory?
I’m persuadable either way – though like the idea of having the completion of one as a condition of entering university. This is because amongst other things it breaks the cycle of those from affluent backgrounds only experiencing life around those of similar means down that well-trodden route of top public school, oxbridge then graduate job in the City or with a major consultancy firm. Working with the people in my group through the duration of my time with the Prince’s Trust influenced how I went about myself during my time in the civil service. I’d like to think that a similar but more widespread programme would lead to some improved decisions in large organisations due to a greater awareness of those who end up making them. That said, it’s not without problems – such as what do you do with international students? Should they have to complete such programmes too? I imagine universities wouldn’t be too happy.
The incentive for those unemployed or those who want a new challenge is that the placements would pay far more than benefits as well as being reasonably interesting and challenging programmes.
Much of what I’ve stated above contain a number of assumptions. This is one of the reasons why further development of policies of this nature need feedback from things like pilots, as well as those who have experience of delivery in this area. One of the biggest weaknesses in policy-making I have found is the relative lack of people with frontline service delivery in the areas that they are making policy in. What may sound like a great idea in policy-wonk-world may not be so smooth in real life. Hence why I’m interested to see what evaluation is going to be done (and by who) on the back of the 2012 pilots for National Citizen Service.