Jan Royall on the need to get more young people engaged in volunteering
Earlier today, I visited Holte School in Lozells, Birmingham, to meet with some volunteers from City Year – the brilliant youth civic service programme backed in the US by President Obama. A few weeks ago I met the founder of City Year and then went to see some young people in action at Sebright Primary School in London. I was deeply impressed by their volunteering, and the impact they’re having on the school in terms of attainment and well-being for pupils who clearly loved having a group of enthusiastic and energetic young people around.
Civic service gives young people confidence, develops their leadership skills, enhances their employability and teaches them the importance of active citizenship – not just as individuals but for their community too. It’s also a great way to bring people together from different backgrounds, to foster understanding and develop life-long relationships.
Last month, I participated in the launch of the new campaign to get more young people involved in social action - The Campaign for Youth Social Action – which aims to double the number taking part by 2020. Too many people are under the misapprehension that social action is just for middle class kids; a useful addition to their cv’s. Nothing could be further from the truth. Most youngsters are eager to grasp opportunities to take on new challenges to serve others.
Indeed, long standing evidence from the US, together with more recent experience from the UK, shows that those growing up in the poorest areas, often struggling with multiple challenges, want to help younger kids in their neighbourhoods and communities. They want others to learn from their experience and rightly see volunteering as a gateway to new experiences that can change lives. Unfortunately, there simply aren’t enough opportunities at present, plus a distinct lack of structured outlets for their idealism.
I hope City Year, as a shining example of best practice, will be able to expand across the country so that it can make a difference to young people’s lives elsewhere. In London and Birmingham, it works by recruiting diverse teams of 18-to-25-year-olds to volunteer in deprived communities for a year as near-peer mentors, role models and tutors.
The volunteers or ‘corps members’ provide classroom support and one-to-one tuition, supervise break times and organise breakfast and after-school activities. They aim to help children enjoy school, improve behaviour and encourage academic achievement. Their day often starts with exercises in the playground. Whilst that might not be a great attraction to some, it has meant that many kids flock to school early to take part in a fun start to the day. And as well as a rewarding experience, the corps members, who wear distinctive red jackets, benefit from 300 hours of training and development, designed to enhance their employability.
One of my current tasks in the Shadow Cabinet is to develop policies relating to civic and democratic engagement. I have seen some terrific examples of youngsters getting involved in their community, sometimes as a result of innovative citizenship teaching, sometimes thanks to charities or other youth organisations. We need to build on the excellence already out there to ensure we maximise the opportunities for them to give back to their communities whilst gaining skills which will help them make a success of their lives.
I very much enjoyed meeting the City Year’s corps members in Birmingham, who will no doubt change the lives of the children they serve while those same children in turn change them. Discussions with the young people, teaching staff and pupils at Holte School were particularly interesting because the corps members are working with a primary and a secondary school that share the same building to ensure the Key Stage 2-3 transition is smooth.
I was also glad that Councillor Brigid Jones, Birmingham’s cabinet member for children and family services, joined me on the visit. I know the City Council would like City Year to expand across the city and I hope that Councillors will agree to be Ambassadors for the programme and mentors for the young people working in their schools. My aim would be to then encourage more Labour-led local authorities to partner with City Year, giving more young people the chance to volunteer, improving their own lives and the children with whom they work.
In this era of tight spending pressures, when we have to look at new ways of ensuring kids from the poorest communities are able to thrive, it is right that we look at how the untapped resource of young people can make a measurable difference to our society as well as benefiting themselves. For too long, too many people have thought of young people as a problem. In reality they have the positive power to transform our society.
Baroness Jan Royall of Blaisdon is Labour’s Leader in the House of Lords
Published 15th July 2013