Last week the Department for Culture, Media and Sport announced an independent Review into full-time social action. It's a great development, and one that I've been advocating for for over a year.
Full time social action is defined as 'practical action in the service of others', undertaken on a long term, full time basis (from three months to a year), aimed at tackling social issues - such as educational or health inequalities - as well as benefiting participants themselves. Settings could include schools, youth centres, health or community centres.
Recent polling by Ipsos Mori for Step up to Serve found that 42% of young people aged between ten and 20 participated in 'meaningful social action'. However those taking part on a full-time basis are currently classified as NEET (Not in Employment, Education or Training).
This means that despite donating their time and efforts to selflessly helping others, they are not legally recognised by society. Lacking a formal legal status identifies these young people as part of a problem when they should be praised for their activity; for example, for spending 40 hours a week helping primary and secondary school students. By contrast, looking for work, caring for sick relatives and jury service are regarded by the Government as time 'usefully spent' and as such, qualify for National Insurance Contributions (NICs).
As a society we are familiar with and supportive of the idea of a 'gap year', usually young people taking a year in between school and university to donate their time to worthy causes abroad. Doing something similar at home is a relatively new concept here, although it's well established in other countries. For example, in the USA, 75,000 young adults participate in full-time volunteering annually as part of AmeriCorps. Research into the impact of AmeriCorps found the economic benefits - higher taxes paid by alumni, fewer benefits paid out - were at least four times higher than the money put into the programme upfront. In Germany, 45,000 are involved in the Federal Voluntary Year, and France's Service Civique is to expand to 100,000 places per year by 2018.
Our own research found that more than half of young people think that full time voluntary 'National Service' should be on offer for young people in Britain if they want to do it. One in two young people aged 16 to 25 would consider a year of service if it was endorsed by the government and had additional benefits.
That chimes with my own experience - young people want to make a difference, but very often they don't know how to. They are also struggling to break the 'no job, no experience, no job' cycle which is particularly challenging if you want a career in the public sector. Full time social action is an alternative route by which young people can make the transition from education to employment, and develop vital workplace skills such as leadership, confidence and resilience.
There has never been a more important time to give young people the chance to play their part in creating solutions to the many challenges our country faces.
If thousands of 18 to 25 year-olds were able to take part in full-time social action each year, I believe that we'd see huge benefits to Britain. Young people could provide local communities and public services with a high energy resource to solve social challenges, becoming more employable themselves whilst coming together with people from a wide range of backgrounds to serve for the common good.
Most importantly for me, we would put young people at the forefront of shaping what 21st century Britain looks like. I really hope that the Full Time Social Action Review is the first step towards making that happen.
For more information on the Government's announcement please click here.