05/11/2014 06:44 GMT | Updated 04/01/2015 05:59 GMT

Volunteering to Break Down Barriers

On a day to day basis, how many people do you meet who are different to you - not just ethnically, but from a different age group or socio-economic background? If recent research is right, the likely answer is not many. Just living in a diverse area isn't enough. Take Londoners for example; their networks have been singled out as among the furthest away from reflecting the makeup of the communities in which they live. If I didn't work for a charity, I might be representative.

Integration, or a lack of it, is back in the news and two recent reports have raised the spectre of an un-United Kingdom with considerable costs and consequences, particularly for the next generation. The Social Integration Commission's 'Wake-up call' hit the headlines with its warning of a society where gated communities become the norm, a school for pupils on free school meals is located opposite another for privileged children and a person's ability to get a job is determined as much by who they know and where they're from as ability. The seeds are already being sown: 40 per cent of jobs are found through personal contacts, half of all children on free school meals are educated in just 20 per cent of schools; and our school system is the fourth most segregated for recent migrants.

Meanwhile, the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission suggests that '2020 could mark a watershed' between an era when rising living standards have been shared by all and a future where the poorest are 'bypassed'. Young people are singled out as 'on the wrong side of the divide'. It estimates that 'on the current trend it will be at least 30 years before the attainment gap at GCSE between pupils who are entitled to free school meals and the rest is even halved'. Poor children are four times as likely to become poor adults as other children.

The message couldn't be clearer; we urgently need to find ways to nurture stronger communities which branch out to end social segregation across age, ethnicity and income and vitally, improve the prospects of all young people, regardless of where they come from.

In a recent essay on public service reform, David Robinson, co-founder of charity, Community Links, proposes that 'It is not a "new normal" that we need to embrace but some part of the "old normal" that we need to reclaim - our common humanity, mutual trust and a willing kindness'. Salvaging that 'common humanity' and building trust needn't be complicated. It could be as simple as re-discovering or developing new shared spaces where people from all backgrounds come together.

With the decline of traditional 'mixing institutions', such as the church and trade unions, the Social Integration Committee's report highlights the importance of the workplace, but what about children and young people? Thinking on this isn't new. Back in 2006, the now London Mayoral candidate, David Lammy MP, was proposing the creation of an 'encounter culture' in response to the London bombings, with a specific focus on 'broadening the attachments' and experiences of young people. There was an emerging cross-party consensus around developing a youth national service scheme which could do just that.

Eight years on, we have the Government's National Citizen Service for 15-17 year olds and the #iwill campaign which aims to make social action a normal part of growing up in Britain. There's also been a renewed interest in full-time volunteer service years, as a culmination of a youth volunteering journey which gives young people a new, rewarding pathway between education and employment, widens horizons and drives social change.

My own organisation, City Year UK is part of this expanding movement which proves that when young people come together to make change happen, barriers are most effectively broken down and 'bridging capital' is built. We tackle both educational inequality and youth unemployment by offering 18-25 year olds the opportunity to take part in a full-time volunteer service year as near-peer mentors, role models and tutors in deprived inner-city schools. But, what also makes us unique is our deliberately diverse recruitment policy. As one of our volunteers explains:

"being around 100 other people who are clearly of similar mind but come from completely different places... that's for me where the biggest impact is from being with City Year rather than being with anything else."
Another adds:
"I've met people who have different views to mine but are working for the same breaks down your idea of stereotypes."

Given that the Social Integration Committee has put a price of up to £6 billion a year on social segregation, any Government in 2015 should look at how it can support the continued development of this growing 'encounter culture', to give children and young people a continuum of opportunities to meet those different from themselves while making a difference.