THE BLOG

"I Agree With Youth Social Action"

21/04/2015 09:59 BST | Updated 16/06/2015 10:59 BST

Consensus is the last word you'd normally associate with General Elections but following on from "I agree with Nick" - the unlikely catchphrase of spring 2010 - five years later it looks like the Conservatives, Labour and the Liberal Democrats have found something else to agree on. Each of these parties has included a commitment to youth social action and volunteering in its manifesto.

This time around however, the unusual concurrence is unlikely to make it into the mainstream media. Despite its potential to make a profound difference to the lives of children and young people up and down the country, a commitment to giving young people meaningful opportunities to take action on the causes they care about just isn't a headline grabber.

So why does it matter? As well as the numerous ways they can make a unique contribution to society, from helping the elderly learn digital skills, to providing near peer support or fundraising, there's now indisputable evidence showing that young people who volunteer also benefit. Recent research by the Behavioural Insights Team, conducted over a two-year randomised control group study, found that teenagers who took part in social action saw robust improvements in measures of empathy, co-operation, resilience, problem-solving skills, sense of community and attitudes towards their own education compared to the control group.

These findings are mirrored by an independent evaluation of the charity that I head up, City Year UK. We offer 18-25 year olds the opportunity to volunteer for a year in deprived inner-city schools to support and inspire pupils to succeed. Not only do our volunteers have an impact on attainment and behaviour, they also stand to gain; over 90 per cent are in full-time education or employment within three months of finishing their 'City Year'.

When it comes to youth social action there is simply little to split hairs over. When young people are able to help their community in an impactful way it's a win-win situation.

Yet, perhaps surprisingly, cross-party support is still in its relative infancy. It wasn't until 2013 when the Prince of Wales launched the Step Up to Serve campaign that the Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats first came together on this issue, with David Cameron and Ed Milliband both quoted as saying it should be "above party politics".

Going back decades, we've seen governments dismantle their predecessor's flagship volunteering programme, only to recut the same pot of money to launch their own initiative. It's in stark contrast to the US, which has successfully developed and expanded citizen service opportunities, including AmeriCorps (mobilizing more than 900,000 Americans to address major needs in their communities) over four Presidencies.

The long-term outcomes of the different approaches are clear. When we look across the Atlantic, not only do we see much higher levels of participation in voluntary service among young people, but we see the enormous impact it can have on society's most challenging social problems.

Just earlier this month, the Charities Aid Foundation found that in the UK 16-24 year olds are least likely to be involved in charitable giving or social action, with 42 per cent having taken part in the previous month, compared to 63 per cent of the 45-64 age group.

I know from my own work that this isn't a result of a lack of interest from the next generation. Our volunteer service year has been over-subscribed every year since we launched five years ago - despite many saying that British young people would never make such a long-term commitment to their communities. I'm also Co-Chair of Generation Change, a coalition of organisations dedicated to helping thousands of children and young people make a difference to where they live. And last year, Demos found that today's teenagers are more engaged with social issues than previous generations, describing them as "Generation Citizen".

We owe it to them to ensure that the new non-partisan, cross-party support for youth social action translates into more, meaningful volunteering opportunities.

A thriving culture of service does not appear overnight. It requires careful investment from government and strategic thinking that goes above and beyond elections. AmeriCorps has been successful because US politicians put aside their differences to commit to young people's civic leadership. Whatever else they disagree on, I look forward to seeing how politicians from all political persuasions build on the same resolve here.

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