All school-leavers should be offered the opportunity to undertake a ‘Year of Service’. Schemes would be offered in three broad categories: public sector, charitable sector, and overseas development assistance. The Government should establish an overarching body to set the criteria, monitor quality, and to allocate and administer participants, as well as to work with organisations and businesses in each sector to design individual schemes. Participants would receive a living allowance and potentially financial incentives for higher education or future employment opportunities. In relevant sectors, such as education and health, participants would be asked and incentivised to commit to be part of a civil contingency reserve.
A ‘Year of Service’ would tackle three critical public policy challenges in the UK that have been exacerbated by the COVID crisis: providing opportunities and skills for young people, fostering national community spirit, and building civil resilience.
First and foremost, a ‘Year of Service’ would provide an enriching continuation of education whether as a bridge to tertiary study or full employment. It would act as a counterbalance to the UK’s academically focused curriculum and provide much-needed workplace and life skills. Participants would receive some universal basic training as well as training specific to their scheme. Universities and employers would be expected to give credit to participants in future applications. This is likely to be especially welcome to the post-COVID generation of school-leavers who will be confronted with a challenging jobs market.
A universal ‘Year of Service’ scheme would provide all young people with the opportunity for a shared experience, helping to counteract the UK’s structural divides that are rooted in geography, culture or class. All schemes would be geared towards public service, albeit manifest in different ways, helping to engender community spirit and a sense of shared national endeavour.
A UK ‘Year of Service’ would echo similar schemes in other countries: The German Voluntary Service Year, or ‘Freiwilliges Soziales Jahr’ (FSJ), describes itself as ‘primarily a practical aid activity in institutions serving the common good’ including education, youth work, welfare, health, disability and elderly care, cultural and historical preservation, integration, civil and disaster protection, and environmental protection. Some former participants are also incentivised to form part of civil defence schemes such as auxiliary fire or paramedic services.
In the US, 75,000 young people participate in AmeriCorps each year, split across three primary programmes that each take a different approach to improving lives and fostering civic engagement. Participants aim to address community needs such as increasing academic achievement, youth mentoring, fighting poverty, sustaining national parks, and preparing for disasters. AmeriCorps currently receives c.$1 billion of federal funding each year which is matched by private or state/local public funds, however a bipartisan group of lawmakers recently proposed a massive uplift of the scheme in response to COVID-19 that would see is increase to 750,000 participants over the next three years, as well as increase the stipends and educational grants offered as incentives.
Schemes in the US have been shown to deliver 12% higher incomes for participants, equivalent to an extra year of post-secondary education, and an unemployment uplift in the year after the scheme of 27%. Longitudinal evidence also shows participants volunteer, donate and contribute more to their communities throughout their lives.
In order to facilitate such a scheme in the UK, I propose that Government establishes an arms-length body to set the criteria, and work with host organisations to design individual schemes. This body would then monitor quality and allocate and administer participants. State services such as schools and the NHS would be mandated to offer certain numbers of placements, but charities and certain private sector providers in critical sectors – such as social care and agriculture – would also be invited to design schemes. I propose that 10,000 placements are offered in year one, growing to 50,000 (or c.10% of cohort) by year five.
Participants would be remunerated at a base level – perhaps equivalent to the apprentice minimum wage – and the expectation would be that, where possible, (domestic) participants would continue to live with parents. Government should however develop a grant scheme to supplement living costs where appropriate, and should also explore an exchange programme so that participants might travel to different parts of the country (or world). Government should also consider offering other incentives such as lower university tuition fees for participants or grants to employers that hire participants.
Overseas programmes should be designed so as to be ODA eligible as a successor to the ICS schemes. The oversight body should invite interest from appropriate charities and Government should consider what posts could do to identify opportunities.
Participants would all be asked and incentivised to register as part of a ‘civil contingency reserve’ for a period of time – say fifteen years – following their participation. Government could then call upon them in moments of national crisis to support efforts such as test and trace or vaccine roll-out. Currently such efforts are ad hoc such as the London 2012 Olympics ‘gamesmakers’ or, more recently, the Sun newspaper’s ‘vaccine army’. Or else they are subcontracted to private service giants or the army.
A ‘Year of Service’ scheme would bring many benefits to individual participants including experience, employability and enrichment. There would also be considerable societal benefits including levelling opportunity, encouraging cohesion, increasing understanding of public and third sector institutions, and engendering a stronger sense of collective endeavour.
Such a scheme would also build long-term resilience for core services. Had it been established policy before the pandemic, current participants and the civil contingency reserve could have been drawn upon to offer support across the whole response effort, from rapidly manning test and trace and vaccination centres, to organising community schemes to tackle loneliness and isolation.
Implemented successfully, a ‘Year of Service’ policy speaks to several of Government’s core objectives: improving skills and opportunities for young people, building back better from the COVID-19 crisis, shoring up our critical public services, and strengthening the Union.