Think tank: National service for 7-year-olds
A programme giving us civic duties throughout our lives should start early

The Sunday Times | December 6, 2009
By Sonia Sodha

‘Broken Britain” has become a broken record. Politicians and commentators sketch a society consumed by greed and celebrity culture, bereft of the “we’re all in it together” values of post-war Britain. We all agree that we need to create a stronger society, yet all sides seem to struggle with practical ideas for how to do it.

Demos today launches a report arguing that the principle of national service, abolished in Britain in 1960, still has something to offer. A national civilian service — a sort of “civic corps” — would look very different from its military forebear: it would be flexible and tailored to people’s lives, not a one-size-fits-all compulsory scheme.

It would, however, be based on the same principles that underpinned wartime service: the idea that we owe something to each other and that citizenship is more than a soulless contract between individuals and the state. It would be paid for by introducing interest on student loans, raising about £1.2 billion a year.

The scheme would see people serving throughout their lives, taking up opportunities, from school projects at the age of seven to paid leave for employees. For a week a year, people would down their tools or keyboards and pick up litter, dredge canals, become reading mentors or help the elderly. The community benefits would be huge.

Volunteer Reading Help, a charity, is already operating a reading mentoring scheme that has improved the reading ability and confidence of 90% of the children who take part. Mentoring of offenders in the criminal justice system has reduced reoffending by up to 11%.

There would be options to suit different needs: spanning service as back-to-work training for unemployed young jobseekers and gap year-style service schemes for young people with access to subsidised loans and grants on the same basis as university undergraduates. The expectation for undergraduates would be that they undertake 100 hours of service over the course of their degree.

It would cost £450m a year to set up. True, it’s a lot of money but, over the long term, civic service could pay for itself twice over in its economic and social returns. It’s estimated that the Canadian version of the programme returns an incredible $2.20 for every dollar originally invested. In Britain, a 2.5% interest rate on student loans would raise that annual £1.2 billion. Despite the inevitable howls of protest, this is fair. Undergraduates do so well by the system, with subsidies of at least £5,000 a year and extra average earnings of £600,000 over their lifetime, that it’s reasonable to ask them to shoulder the costs.

Why is this new? Up until now, all the focus of ideas for civic service have been on young people, especially those not in employment, education or training (Neets), whose numbers have been swelled by the recession to almost one in five. Too many young people are starting adulthood without basic skills such as motivation, sticking power and communication that are crucial to their ever finding themselves in work. Getting them involved in planning and carrying out community projects — for example, mentoring and supporting children from disadvantaged areas, working with local police to challenge gang crime and providing companionship in old people’s homes — would boost the interpersonal skills they need.

The evidence from the United States is compelling: taking part in service projects yields better results and better engagement at school. And employers value these programmes enormously — City Year, a scheme that places young mentors in deprived, inner-city schools, has a number of corporate partners who recruit from the scheme.

If it is to work, the service must be universal. During our research we held an event with 53 young people from all backgrounds. Their message was clear: a one-size-fits-all scheme won’t work. It shouldn’t just weigh on the young — “we get blamed for everything that’s wrong with society”, said one — and if you wait until the age of 16 before asking today’s young people to give back, it’s too late. They were right. That’s why our proposals run from the age of seven to adulthood, rather than a scheme for young adults.

When it comes to tackling intractable social issues, the state doesn’t always have the answer: we as citizens can do much more. But the state can help, providing a space in which young people can be taught how to put the values of citizenship into practice while they are still at school.

As both Labour and the Conservatives refine their policies, this is the first time anyone has set out in practical detail how a national volunteering scheme for people of all ages should work. The benefits are too many to ignore.

Youngsters, your country needs you.