A Civic Corps
by Sonia Sodha
Today, Demos launches a new report – Service Nation – that sets out our proposals for a national civic service. The report draws on evidence from the UK and abroad to show that service schemes have a ‘two for one’ benefit. They boost the employability of the young people who take part, equipping them with the skills like motivation, team work and communication that are so valued in today’s job market. Not only that, well-structured service and volunteering schemes can bring real benefits to the community. For example, volunteer reading schemes have improved children’s reading ability and confidence, and mentoring of offenders in the criminal justice system has been found to reduce reoffending between four and eleven per cent. The report argues that when times are tight, we as citizens should take responsibility for helping to support squeezed public services, but in order for this to happen there needs to be a structure, such as a national service scheme.
The idea of national civic service has been growing in popularity over the last few years. Politicians from across the spectrum back the idea: Gordon Brown announced an ambition that all young people should do 50 hours of community service by the age of 19, and David Cameron supported the idea of a summer service scheme for 16 year olds post-GCSEs back in 2007. Both of these are to be welcomed as a step in the right direction.
What makes our proposals different, however, is that we don’t think a ‘one-size-fits-all’ scheme for on particular age group will work for everyone. This was a message that was strongly reinforced in the young people’s convention event we held with 54 young people as part of the project. To ensure the greatest possible appeal, we need a lifetime service strategy that spans school to retirement.
Our report sets out proposals that span service learning at school for 7-16 year olds, ‘service’ NVQs for 16-18 year olds in FE, gap-year-style service schemes for 18-24 year olds with access to the same loans and grants as university students, and the expansion of work-based service schemes like TeachFirst.
Importantly, we think service should be for everyone – not just young people who have been failed by the system and so who stand to gain the most from it. That is why we think it is right that all university undergraduates – who benefit from state subsidies upwards of £5,000 each year – should be expected to do 100 hours of community service over the course of their degree.
When service schemes are well run, they can generate more than their original investment in economic and social value – for example, the Canadian service scheme, Katimavik, returns $2.20 for every dollar invested. However, a national civic service scheme will require upfront investment – around £450million a year. We suggest this should come from introducing a 2.5 per cent real interest rate on student loans. It is fair to ask students to contribute more towards the cost of their education when they go on to earn on average £600,000 more over the course of their lifetime.