The Blog

Is Teaching Public Service in School the Answer to Fixing 'Broken Britain'?

Ever since the riots blazed across UK streets and TV sets worldwide last year, debate has raged on the catalyst that sparked an estimated 15,000 individuals to become one angry mob. Around 70% of the London 2011 rioters were under the age of 24 so identifying a root cause could well help stop these scenes happening again.

Ever since the riots blazed across UK streets and TV sets worldwide last year, debate has raged on the catalyst that sparked an estimated 15,000 individuals to become one angry mob. Around 70% of the London 2011 rioters were under the age of 24 so identifying a root cause could well help stop these scenes happening again.

Discussions have been wide-ranging: some calling for extra support for parents in underprivileged areas, others asking for an improvement in the standard of schooling, more for the assistance for the long-term unemployed- a group growing in number on our little island UK.

A number of voices - and loud ones - have called for the re-introduction of national service. When it previously ran in the UK between 1945 and 1964 over 2.5 million young men from across the country participated in mandatory military training. Did it stop because it wasn't working or there wasn't a need anymore?

This proposed solution has undoubtedly caused a stir, but at the same time it has received great support, with many people agreeing that a return to national service would have a positive impact in modern British society. It's clear that many see it as the perfect way to reduce anti-social behaviour in the UK and prevent a return of the deplorable scenes that engulfed our mass media last August.

Would it work? In my eyes national service would only be a short term fix and is likely to cause more problems than it solves. While I do agree that we need to look at ways in which we can engage youth across the UK, I think rather than a return to military service, an introduction of public service to the national curriculum would provide a long term solution to this conundrum.

This would address the recommendations in the recently published Riots, Communities and Victims Panel report, investigating the cause of the riots, calls for schools to assume greater responsibility in helping children build character. I firmly believe this can be achieved by engaging young people in public service.

The investment of time, energy, and most importantly confidence in young people can't be underestimated. As Darra Singh, chair of the Riots Communities and Victims Panel, alluded to in the report, "when people feel they don't have a reason to stay out of trouble, to put it simply they won't." This can bring with it devastating consequences, consequences for their communities. It has been proven that engaging with young people and making them feel part of their community can prevent this dangerous feeling of discontent.

The introduction of a public service element within the school curriculum would certainly help provide young people with a social conscience; helping them understand the implications of their actions. This method although seemingly simple has had proven results.

As principal of UWC Atlantic College in StDonat's Castle, Vale of Glamorgan, a college involved in the conceptualisation and development of the International Baccalaureate (IB) Diploma, I see first-hand the positive effects that community engagement can provide.

While the college teaches traditional subjects we also cover areas including peace and conflict resolution and environmental studies. Alongside the academic learning we place huge emphasis on the compulsory element of social service - all students commit to weekly activities designed to benefit them and the wider community. This includes music therapy with Alzheimer's patients, helping foreign inmates communicate with staff in the local prison, visiting vulnerable pensioners in nursing homes, manning lifeboats at the RNLI station (our students actually invented the RIB lifeboat in 1960s) and a number of other community engagement schemes.

The values and lessons taught at UWC Atlantic College become engrained within the psyche of the students and become pertinent to their daily lives. We all act on the basis of our own understanding and experience of a situation, so those of us who have a broader understanding of different cultures, beliefs, and views and working to help them, are more likely to take into account the consequences of our actions.

To resolve an issue it is important to first understand the perspectives of others; their background, their reasons, their response. The solution is not decided on who is the best at expressing their anger, but about trying to get the two sides to understand each other's opposing view and recognising that you can facilitate that. This principle is something that is widely taught in the UWC movement (our college celebrates its 50th anniversary this year and has since spawned 12 further schools and colleges in the UWC movement across five continents) and is incredibly relevant in the political climate we are living in today.

I firmly believe that by engaging with young people and encouraging them to explore alternative points of view and understanding they will be more aware of the consequences of their actions and are therefore less likely to react violently.

While the introduction of public service may be too strong an answer, and not a possibility in some cases, I am sure there is room in the school syllabus to teach a higher level of awareness and understanding. This will undoubtedly help reduce anti-social behaviour and more importantly help ensure we're not having conversations on the UK riots of 2021.