29 September 2004
by Liz Stuart
Summer is over, the drama of A-level results is past, and now about 200,000 students are gearing up for their next big challenge - heading off on a gap year. Some will travel, but many will choose to volunteer, perhaps teaching in Nepal or turtle-birthing in Costa Rica. A disproportionate number will be white, privately educated and from wealthy families.
What a shame that this outburst of civic activity is the preserve of a privileged few, and taking place abroad. Having worked in Belize for a gap-year organisation, I have first-hand knowledge that the skills a young person acquires while volunteering abroad are often more durable than the schools they build.
There is plenty of evidence that volunteering, as well as fostering confidence and independence, builds commitment and engagement, or social capital. There is a pretty neat fit between those least likely to take a year out, and those least likely to vote.
So why not set up a BritCorps - a national volunteering programme for 16- to 24-year-olds would make gap years available to everyone, at the same time as turning their benefits from a private good into a public one.
Many developing countries have beaten us to it. Mexico's Servicio Social has been running since 1944, while Nigeria introduced its Youth Service Corps in 1973.
Better, why not do as US presidential candidate John Kerry is proposing, and give volunteers a sweetener? He is making civic participation, in particular an initiative to get one in seven pre-university students into a volunteer programme, a central part of his campaign. Participants would receive four years of tuition at a public university in return for two years of volunteering. Tasks might range from mentoring students to building affordable housing and cleaning parks.
It would be important that BritCorps be open to all 16- to 24-year-olds, not only those going to university. As in the US, BritCorps members could be given money towards university tuition or training fees. This might just encourage those from poorer backgrounds to continue with their education.
Far from being a way of getting cheap labour from young people, it would offer everyone the chance to learn new skills, to mix with people they would not otherwise meet, and participate in an activity which affords the pleasure of altruism.
A year working in a care home is unlikely to beat the attractions of a Thai beach. But only a minority of students are able to afford the latter, and as part of a well-branded and organised team of volunteers under an established programme, BritCorps just might prove as popular as the overseas voluntary programmes.
These issues are on the government's radar. The Department for Skills and Education recently invested £5m in a pilot project to encourage young people from lower-income families to volunteer long term, and in May the Home Office and the Treasury set up a commission to look at new ways to persuade young people to volunteer. The Russell commission will present its final recommendations to the government next March. I hope that BritCorps is among them.
Liz Stuart is a policy consultant working in the development sector.