At the environment’s service

Attention all sixth-formers: worried about securing a university place? How about a period of volunteering during which you can learn new skills, help the community and gain a financial fillip before the academy beckons, suggests James Derounian

August 17, 2010

It is the holiday season, so here’s a quiz question: what is the connection between David Cameron’s “Big Society”, Vince Cable’s vision for higher education, school leavers and graduate skills? The answer is a “green gap year” for students.

Imagine the energy of teenage volunteers able to complete community service, help with projects to address climate change and contribute towards sustainability. This could be delivered through a voluntary period of National Service by school leavers (and older students) before they start university.

Cameron and the Con-Lib coalition have highlighted the two-month National Citizen Service initiative as “a programme for 16-year-olds to give them a chance to develop the skills needed to be active and responsible citizens”, and a green gap year would extend this idea.

The US has blazed a trail in terms of linking service to higher education via the Service Learning programme, which – according to the Corporation for National and Community Service – “enhances the community through the service provided, but also has powerful learning consequences for the students”.

Many US presidents have promoted forms of national service – from Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Civilian Conservation Corps to Bill Clinton’s 300,000-strong AmeriCorps – and the approach has gained further momentum in the post-9/11 era. As President Obama comments: “Now is exactly the time when we need more volunteerism.”

As far back as 1938, the American educator John Dewey argued that “all genuine education comes about through experience”. He contended that interaction between individuals and their surroundings can foster valuable reflection.

Today in the UK, many school leavers face the prospect of A-level success that will not translate into university places. So what could a National Service-fulfilling green gap year do for them?

First, it could help teenagers become more independent before they make the move to university – a “safe” first step away from home and toward independence. Second, it could provide real-world experience: life and study skills such as working with others, personal organisation and meeting deadlines. There are countless projects – environmental improvements, regeneration initiatives and health and welfare schemes – that could benefit from an injection of fresh blood.

A green gap year could also extend and give serious meaning to secondary school citizenship classes; represent a means to address the democratic deficit by re-connecting young voters with society; and perhaps form the basis of reflection for academic credit. Other potential benefits include harnessing the idealism and enthusiasm of youth and fostering cross-generational work, such as young people helping elderly neighbours and gaining knowledge and skills from them.

Such a workforce could accelerate the attack on global warming while undertaking purposeful “employment” in a time of recession: something that should impress employers pre- or post-graduation. The work of volunteers could strengthen communities, improve participants’ lives while transforming the lives of others, and help to engender mutuality. As Cameron has observed, there is a desperate need to “create communities with oomph” and this mechanism could help make the Big Society rhetoric a reality.

Specifically in terms of higher education, National Service could extend existing volunteering – with Brownies, sports clubs, mentoring and so on. It could also constitute a bridge to independent learning at university and offer breathing space, allowing individuals the chance to reflect on whether they really want to go to university. Furthermore, the UK would be following in the footsteps of Germany, France and Italy, which all have national programmes for long-term voluntary service by young people.

Of course, there are dangers: poor communities must not be further stigmatised or exploited as a free resource for student education, and neither must those on National Service displace paid employees. Additionally, there is the risk of patronising the “needy” and inducing dependence on charity.

So what’s in it for the students? My suggestion is that in exchange for, say, six months of community service, volunteers should receive an educational credit equivalent to their first-year university tuition fees (currently about £3,000). Such a payment could provide a welcome boost for individuals on low incomes, with funds provided by the proposed Big Society Bank (which is expected to be able to draw on at least £60 million garnered from dormant accounts). As Martin Luther King observed: “Everybody can be great because everybody can serve.”

James Derounian is principal lecturer in community development and local governance, University of Gloucestershire.

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