You want there to be compulsory voluntary work? You oxymoron!

Compulsory service. National service. Compulsory voluntary work.

It doesn’t matter how you dress it up, it all boils down to the same thing. Someone, in fact, many people, out there believe that a long time ago the world was a better place. Said world contained various factors which made it so wonderful; a sense of community, National Service, people doing their bit and caring about their neighbours.

The concept may be something meaningful, the idea of a sense of community isn’t a bad one and the truth is, the world is a very different place to what it once was. We can’t change that and we can’t look back at the past with nostalgia and regret what no longer exists.

But compulsory service?

I have always had a love/hate relationship with this idea that some form of National Service would make the world a better place.

Before we go any further, let’s be clear about what compulsory activity this would be.

It would be a government funded programme (though it would likely be run by charitable organisations specially designed to cater for said service).

Unlike previous carnations, National Service would probably not be a military operation (though that could be one choice) and it would be open to both males and females.

According to a Guardian article from 2013, it could allow for citizenship activities such as running food banks, aid programmes overseas, working as assistants in schools, doing art internships, setting up community radio stations and helping out with vulnerable people in the community.

They also suggest that it should run for a minimum of a years’ service for each individual, with various benefits at the end of it. For example, education credits and tax breaks.

What a fantastic idea, having young people volunteering in projects which allow them to help the community. Right? Well, yeah, it is actually. But…

1. Compulsory?

Making anything compulsory adds stress, it adds varied interest and it adds inactivity. So why would we want to set up any form of compulsory service? The word compulsory irks me somewhat. If you force people to be involved in something, then you will inevitably get people who are so lacking in engagement that they mess about, and in messing about that distracts others, it influences others, or it damages the work that they are doing. It’s proven time and time again.

The introduction of Education Maintenance Allowance into the UK was, in theory, a wonderful thing. It gave young people money and meant they didn’t have to get part time jobs to supplement their college education (that’s the equivalent of the final 2 years of high school, not university, to any international people reading this). It allowed children from families where there was pressure to gain employment instead of continue their education to continue their education and still receive money.

It also meant more people were in the classroom who didn’t really want to be there. Young people would sign up for college, get their money, and doss around for two years. I’m not saying it was common, but it was perhaps common enough that some people’s lessons were disrupted in a similar way lessons are disrupted in schools. You know, that place you MUST go to until you’re 16.

In addition to that, I have worked with a lot of the target audience for said new ‘National Service’. It was voluntary, people chose to be there. Yet, when it came down to actually putting the work in and completing a task, fewer people were actively engaged as you might think. That’s not to say there weren’t people who were interested, who took part willingly and enjoyed every minute of it. But there were a select few who actually made many of the tasks a lot harder.

Put in a ‘you must do a year of this’ clause and instantly you will find even fewer people being engaged in the programme.

2. Rewards?

I feel like déjà vu has sat down in the chair next to me and is laughing at this very concept. Why? Well, just read on…

3. Millennium Volunteers/V involved

Have you ever heard of these organisations? Millennium Volunteers was set up in about 1999/2000, it was a scheme designed to allow young people to volunteer. It ran for many years, before someone decided to do some research and rebrand it as V (or Vinvolved, Vinspired, etc.). This was a volunteering scheme which, whilst also being a national charity, funded local charities around the country to run volunteering projects for young people.

As part of MV/V a young person could work towards their 50, 100 or 200 hours certificates (it varied depending on which ‘project’ you were under). Some organisations had specific voluntary opportunities under their roof, whilst others were sort of like an opportunity finder. You could sign up to an organisation and they would signpost you to another organisation who worked in an area you were interested in, such as the arts, children and young people, the elderly, etc.

MV/V were very big on rewarding young people for their achievements. That’s where the certificates came in, but there was also a lot more. Organisations were funded not just to find projects for young people, but to reward them in various different ways.

As a volunteer with both MV and V, I visited Pizza Hut on many occasions; we got Pizza Hut delivery on even more. I went bowling, ice skating, the cinema and I even went on residential weekends. I got to be part of celebration events, awards ceremonies and I even received a couple of vouchers for HMV. These rewards may not be the same kind of rewards The Guardian suggested, but they were most definitely rewards which young people would accept willingly.

The other important thing to point out, when talking about MV/V, is that the number of young people volunteering under these schemes was high. So much so that at one time the 16-25 age group were the largest group of people to volunteer, if my memory services me right. If it doesn’t, then we definitely clocked up a very decent number of young people volunteering.

So why do we feel the need to set up compulsory volunteering (talk about an oxymoron) opportunities for young people when we had something so effective?

That’s a very good question and one which I will probably not be able to answer without providing you with some lovely bias.

The National Citizen Service set up by the government was a great initiative, in theory. It allows young people to do some good in their community and it engages them at a young age. Great, Brownie points for the government.

Except there are some issues with the NCS. As fantastic a programme as it is, it also costs a hell of a lot of money. Each place costs at least double that of the previous MV/V places on offer. The programme is only for those aged 16 and 17 years old, though there is potential for these young people to be signposted on to other organisations after their initial voluntary opportunity. These opportunities would be funded by those individual organisations and any rewards would be up to them.

Compulsory (or voluntary) service is a fantastic idea in concept:

– you can gain skills you didn’t realise you had

– you can meet new people and make new friends

– you can have something that looks great on your CV

– you can help the community and feel more connected to it

– you can gain a confidence boost and really help build positive self esteem

These benefits never go away, they will always be there regardless of whether a project is compulsory or voluntary. The pros definitely outweigh the cons for any individual taking part and those benefits will definitely last any young people involved a lifetime.

But there are also many issues, many factors to consider when looking at whether something would be beneficial to society as a whole.

My main issue with compulsory service is the word compulsory, my other issue is the cost implication and how that takes away from other potential opportunities which are perhaps more worth the money put into them.

Do I support a scheme that allows young people the opportunity to volunteer in their communities? Definitely.

Do I support a scheme that forces young people the opportunity to do service in their communities? No.

Do I wish money taken from existing projects hadn’t been moved to fund projects that cost twice as much and benefit less people? Hell to the yes.

Let young people volunteer, encourage young people to volunteer, but please, whatever you do, don’t make anything compulsory.

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