In December, I wrote in the Guardian calling for Universities Minister Jo Johnson to look at full-time volunteering schemes as a precursor to 2-year degree options. This week, a separate government department published a review that calls for work to increase the number of opportunities to the same level as 2-year degree courses. It's time to join the dots.
The Conservative and Coalition Governments have done some fantastic work to increase the availability of social action opportunities for young people. National Citizen Service (NCS), has achieved cross party support in a way that no other flagship volunteering programme has in this country, and is fast on its way to becoming a staple part of young people’s experience of growing up in the UK.
On top of this, Generation Change has been a big supporter of work done by Ministers in support of the #iwill campaign. This has seen positive steps in a range of Government departments – including DCMS funding for the ambitious #iwill fund, and the Department for Education’s guidance to schools that recognised social action as work experience.
But I sometimes wish that Ministers would talk to each other a bit more. There are so many ways that Government could achieve more for young people if only departments could work together.
“Full time” social action is one such area that is long overdue some cross-departmental thinking.
This week, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) published an independent review into full time social action provision, that it had commissioned Steve Holliday to chair. Published on a Friday afternoon without much fanfare, it would be easy to dismiss this report as unimportant.
But in fact, the conclusions of this report are quite stunning in their implication:
NCS should explore the option to act as a broker and quality assurance body for FTSA opportunities
National Citizen Service become a Royal Charter body last year – making it the first national institution in the UK that has been specifically set up to support young people’s social action.
The mandate for this new institution is not just to deliver a programme for 16/17 year olds, but also to support a wider journey of opportunities between the ages of 15 and 25. Steve Holliday is right to conclude that the expansion of NCS is likely to fuel more demand for full-time and extended forms of social action; and NCS must inevitably play a role in helping to signpost progression on to these opportunities. DCMS will need to work closely with the NCS Trust to ensure that this happens in the coming years.
The rapid expansion of National Citizen Service (NCS) will see increasing numbers of young people who wish to progress onto more committed forms of social action. This may make the current situation untenable in the future by exacerbating problems that have been identified by charities that provide these opportunities.
“Untenable” is not a word that gets bandied about lightly. The findings of the report make it clear that there are numerous problems in the status quo for how organisations offer long-term and full-time volunteering opportunities. This includes barriers to offering training, an inability to recognise those who take part, and a host of issues with the way that volunteers interact with National Insurance and the benefits system. The situation is only going to get worse.
The report calls for cross-departmental work on these issues between DCMS and the Department of Work and Pensions.
...recent proposals by the Universities Minister for promoting 2-year degrees have cited evidence about the experience and performance of 2,500 current participants a year who already undertake 2-year degrees, whereas there are only 1,000 young people who participate in (full time social action) on an annual basis. More work is needed to increase the number of young people in FTSA to similar numbers.
It makes perfect sense to me for young people to have a wider range of options in higher education – and it has been positive to see proposals by the Universities Minister to promote more 2-year degrees. Steve Holliday suggests that full-time social action schemes need to be looked at as a potential “transition year” – exactly what I proposed in the Guardian last year.
But for this to happen will require further cross-departmental working; this time between DCMS and the Department for Education. This is an idea that clearly warrants a pilot, or further research – but will either the Universities or Civil Society Minister step up to the task?
Generation Change has been calling for Government action to establish a recognised full-time social action model in the UK since 2015. Since that time, the number of charities that support this idea has grown significantly. Steve Holliday's recommendations offer a robust starting point for developing a framework for this to happen in the UK. But it will take leadership from Ministers to establish the level of a cross-departmental thinking that is needed to get this right.
Feature image: Volunteering Matters, full time volunteering programme.