22 Jul 10

National Citizen Service: volunteering meets orienteering or finding teenagers something to do?

The Government has announced plans for a sort of junior National Service, albeit voluntary and non-military.

The Prime Minister said that the scheme will help youngsters who feel their lives "lack shape and direction".

However, like the rest of the "Big Society" or which it forms a part, there is a danger that it is the National Citizen Service itself that lacks "shape and direction". There may not even be enough money for it according to the BBC, "ministers have acknowledged the scope of next year's pilot schemes will hinge on the outcome of this autumn's spending review when individual departments are set to face cuts of up to 25%". The launch release says that "the scale of the project will be subject to the Spending Review".

It seems to be a mix of helping local communities and an "outdoor challenge" including "10 days away from home, working on projects to develop 'life skills and resilience' volunteering meets orienteering.

On the one hand the Government is promoting the "Big Society" idea of individual and community volunteering and participation, funded by raiding the piggy bank "using every penny of dormant bank and building society account money allocated to England.. alongside the private sector investment that we will leverage" .

On the other, it is proposing using public money to fund its National Citizen Service. If it is keen on volunteering and non-governmental organisations getting involved, why bring the state into the territory of the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme, the Scouts, the Guides, Cadets, conservation volunteers .?

If every 16-year-old is to be given the opportunity to participate in a residential and home-based programme of events lasting seven to eight weeks, how will this fit in with plans to raise the participation age for education/training to 17 by 2013 and 18 by 2015 across England?

The fundamental question that needs to be addressed is how do you distinguish between this type of community service and that used as an alternative to custodial sentences?

One is voluntary and one compulsory, but both are about helping the community and developing the individual. Can socially useful projects be a beneficial pleasure for one group and a beneficial penalty for another?

Is the Prime Minister promoting one type for young people while the Justice Secretary promotes another for offenders?

Is there a danger that this scheme could be seen by some as penalising the young for being young by cajoling them into activities to keep them occupied?

Society as a whole needs to decide if 16 to 18-year-olds are adults or children. The ages at which young people can drive, get married or buy alcohol remain a range of dates between 16 and 18. At the moment it seems we want these child-adult hybrids to be participating citizens who must stay on at school or be found useful things to do.

Is the National Citizen Service about keeping young people off the streets and appealing to older citizens and Holywood actors who get misty-eyed about the 'good old days' of National Service, or a genuine attempt to give young people useful life chances and experiences while helping local communities?

Do let us know your thoughts

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