The case for national service for youth

national service
The 1st/4th Gibraltar Scout Group, an Overseas Branch of The Scout Association by Joalnorton is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Downing Street is reportedly considering plans for a national service for youth to help “heal divided UK”. The Metro reports on the scheme where 14 year olds would spend a month with students from other schools and backgrounds. They would live and work together, learning new skills and performing activities that are considered to be socially useful.

The concept of the national service for youth come from Jon Yates, executive director of the Youth Endowment Fund and former government education adviser. He outlined the scheme in a book: Fractured: Why our societies are coming apart and how we put them back together again. Yates itemises the extent of the challenge we face.

Why a national service for youth?

Yates itemises the extent of the challenge we face. He points out that many of us are leading more socially isolated lives. Examples of this from his research include:

  • Most pensioners talk to no one under the age of 35 (bar grandchildren)
  • Half of graduates have no friends who are not graduates
  • A UK barrister would have to invite 100 people to his house before an unemployed person would enter the gathering.

Many people living in Britain accept that we are more divided as a nation than ever. We have lost what Yate’s  calls “the common life”, where people shared experiences with their peers, many of whom they wouldn’t normally choose to spend time with.

They work through challenges set with team members they may not initially know well. These experiences form the basis of new friendships and trust between people of different backgrounds, religions and social classes.

The argument for a national youth service says that such experiences lead to more confident individuals and stronger communities. Proponents of a national service for any country, argue that this is good for the participating individuals and has good outcomes socially, economically and politically that help build more inclusive societies.

What would a national service look like?

We in the UK are historically good at devising curricula for national youth schemes. The Scouts, Guides and the Duke of Edinburgh Award, as British models that challenge young people, are widely adopted by others as templates of good practice. Likewise, the National Citizen Service has started to challenge young people, taking them out of their bubble, raising aspirations and building common experiences through set tasks and challenges.

Young people need more opportunities to participate in such activities, learn practical skills and form friendships with people from communities that are not their own. This is best done by taking participants out of their communities and comfort zones, so they can mix with a new crowd and face new challenges together.

The challenges include those such as climate change, rewilding our national parks and cities, supporting an ageing population, and new methods needed for farming and food production. These are the issues facing young people today.

A national youth service could introduce participants to the practical skills they may wish to develop that may open up career opportunities as they leave the formal education system.

What needs to happen now?

If we accept that a national youth service is needed, then the government needs to get behind it. Such a scheme requires state support and money to scale up and engage with a generation of young people who are losing out on opportunities due to the pandemic.

In some communities, where the education and poverty gap is already significant, this generation of children may become permanently lost, diminishing their skills base, thwarting ambition and storing up problems for future generations.

The cost for schemes like this will be great, but we must weigh it against the cost of doing nothing.

The generation of young people coming through our education system has a unique experience of school, college and university disruption. We know they need extra help; the debate is only as to the form this help should take.

Should it should be restricted to catching up on missed lessons, or is a long-term broader approach needed? As we face a post-pandemic future, we need more than anything, a generation that is well balanced, educated and motivated to achieve the best they can be.

We can’t afford a return to a divided society where, as Yates claims:

“Richer kids have networks we can’t access. Now the richest 5% live in a bubble and don’t know what our life is like. Our elected leaders are a bubble of middle-class graduates. Thirty years ago a third of Labour MPs were working class. Today just 3% are.”

A national youth service has the potential to be a positive experience for the individuals who participate. It could also be good for the future of political leadership of the UK, the cohesiveness of its component nations and, possibly even it’s very future.

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