Changing national character through volunteering
14 November 2005
by Donald MacLeod
Can you change national character? Perhaps one of the most ambitious initiatives of the Scottish parliament is to change the attitudes of young people profoundly - to cure generations of pessimism and a distrust of enterprise, what has become known as the "Scottish cringe".
Jack McConnell, the first minister, who today addresses the Young Enterprise Scotland national conference in Edinburgh, believes that a combination of activities in and around schools can make the next generation more confident and willing to seize opportunities. And, of course, he hopes they will make their careers or build their businesses in Scotland rather than heading south.
He is putting his government's backing behind two initiatives - one to promote volunteering among 16 to 25-year-olds and the other, called Determined to Succeed, to encourage enterprise.
Enterprise is defined broadly, rather than purely in a business sense. "It's about psychology," he says, and includes enterprising teaching and learning, entrepreneurial activities in schools and work-related vocational learning for students disaffected with the classroom.
In the second half of the 20th century Scotland became a more fearful and less confident society, says Mr McConnell. "I think Scottish homes and schools became known for a 'don't get ideas above your station' approach. I'm determined one of the things we will do with devolution is to change that so this generation and future generations of young Scots are more confident and entrepreneurial," he said.
Mr McConnell's hope is that not only will these initiatives alter young people's attitudes, but start to remedy Scotland's poor record in business start-ups compared to other parts of the UK. The country's record in the 21st century should match the 19th when it was famed for enterprise, he says.
As a teacher in the 1980s, Mr McConnell saw young people lose confidence - he blames lack of investment, bad curriculum changes and the loss of out of school activities. "It needs a determined long-term approach, but I can sense a change happening."
Ministers have committed £86m over five years to the Determined to Succeed programme, run by a team of civil servants and people seconded from business.
At Banchory academy in the north east of Scotland, 170 first-year pupils are engaged in a "cookie challenge", with sponsorship from Sainsbury's, to make and sell a cookie in a day after business planning - the idea being to promote literacy, numeracy, team work IT and "creativity in a realistic context".
Through Project Scotland young people can get living expenses for up to a year of volunteering. Since May there have been 900 applications and 200 volunteers have started.
The scheme is inspired by President Clinton's Americorps project under which tens of thousands of young people are volunteering in the US. Mr McConnell argues volunteering can help people fulfil their potential, acquire new skills and contribute to the health and vibrancy of their communities.
"I think the combination of Determined to Succeed and Project Scotland is giving us a range of opportunities for young Scots that could make the 'Scottish cringe' a thing of the past in future generations."