Article: Youth volunteering: the new panacea?

First Published: 30th June 2017 | Author: Bernard Davies | Tags: , , , , ,

Bernard Davies discusses policy and practice around youth volunteering, from community service to social action.

From ‘community service’ to ‘social action’

Legacies from the past

Governments of all parties have long been keen to get young people to volunteer – that is, to give some of their time freely to a worthy cause or activity. Papers and reports going back at least fifty years have been urging them to offer themselves for what was at the time often called ‘community service’. One of these, from the Youth Service Development Council entitled Service by Youth and dated December 1965, prompted me even then to ask: So – is this another attempt to tame the young? (Davies, 1967).

In the 1980s, at a time of high levels of youth unemployment, policy-makers went further, floating the idea that such volunteering might be converted into compulsory ‘national service’, even perhaps to include ‘a military option’. (Davies, 1999: 79-82). In 2009, the then Prime Minister Gordon Brown seemed to favour the idea when he suggested that young people might be required to undertake fifty hours of ‘voluntary’ work so that ‘community service will become a normal part of growing up in Britain’. (Kirby, 2009).

He and his Home Secretary David Blunkett had by then already given strong personal backing to the creation in 2006 of ‘V’ – renamed vInspired in 2011. (Davies, 2008: 123-129). With youth policy increasingly focusing on young people’s deficits, two years later ‘V’ explained that volunteering opportunities ‘… can help young people develop … skills, which employers say they need’ as a justification for the £23 million it had ‘invested’ in them in the previous two years. (WM Enterprise, 2009).

Young people who had actually experienced such volunteering were not always so convinced of its benefits for them. A 2009 report on their role in rural conservation projects, for example, revealed that many called the work they had been asked to do ‘“slave labour” and “grunt work”’. (Watson, 2009). Other evidence has suggested that only just over half of the age group support the idea that they should be required to undertake community service – a much smaller proportion than for the population as a whole (Mycock and Tongue, 2009) – while a 2010 research report showed them strongly opposed to compulsory national civic service. (Watson, 2010).

Ministers however have remained unmoved. Indeed by the time these last research findings had appeared, Brown and his Secretary of State for Children Ed Balls had – in the previous March – announced a £6 million fund for five two-year ‘pilot’ programmes. These were to provide ‘community activity’ opportunities for 14 to 16 year olds with a view to helping ‘close the generation gap’. (Lepper, 2010). The ground was thus well laid for the wider and more strategic range of initiatives promoted by the Coalition and Conservative governments from 2010 on.

Rediscovering a role for the state

It was of course in this period that local Youth Service budgets were cut ruthlessly and hundreds of open access youth work facilities closed. When challenged, ministers’ constantly repeated line was, to quote one of them: ‘… we are not in the business of prescribing to (local authorities) exactly what services should be delivered or what they should spend’. (Loughton, 2011).

However, when it served their (neo-liberal) purposes this passive view of the potential role of the central state was reformulated in striking ways – provided that two crucial ideological conditions were met. One was that organisations and their programmes guaranteed to draw young people into ‘volunteering’ of some form; the other, that through these activities they trained them in the individualistic qualities of, for example, ‘strong character’, ‘resilience’ and ‘independence’ and thereby helped ensure their ‘transition’ into well adjusted and ‘contributing’ citizens, workers and parents. Once these conditions were met, it turned out, substantial central government funds could after all be found.

This more sustained commitment to this form of ‘youth work’ was flagged up early in a 2012 report commissioned by another Prime Minister, David Cameron. This relabelled youth volunteering as ‘social action’ – though, by defining this as ‘practical action in the service of others’ it carefully glossed over the term’s roots in often radical and oppositional forms of collective activity. Instead it suggested a much more conformist vision, proposing that by 2020:

…all sectors will have contributed to making our country a place where the majority of young people are involved in social action and are encouraged, recognised and valued for their contribution to society. (Cleverdon and Jordan, 2012)

Implementing youth social action

Under the Cameron and then the May governments this vision has been implemented through three high profile (and state-funded) initiatives in particular:

  • The National Citizens Service (NCS), which expects all its ‘graduates’ to take on volunteering activities in their local communities – and which between 2016 and 2020 is due to receive £1.26 billion of public money. (Puffett, 2016)
  • A new body – ‘#iwill/Step Up To Serve’ – established in 2013 with initial funding of £5 million. This was to be used to encourage 10 – 20 to year olds to take up ‘local activities such as restoring a community property or organising a charity event’. (Jozwiak, 2013). A further £11 million was allocated to it in February 2014 to fund projects in forty-one voluntary and community sector organisations including UK Youth, NCVYS and the NYA. (McCardle, 2014). In 2017 it contributed £1 million to a project aiming to ‘inspire young people to take practical action to tackle loneliness’. (Lepper, 2017)
  • Dedicated funding for a range of uniformed organisations – both those with long youth work histories such as the Scouts, Girlguiding and the Boys and Girls’ Brigades, and the cadet forces linked to the armed services. Over the five years from 2010 I calculate that this totalled at least £70 million.[1]

These schemes have not only become taken-for-granted features of the youth policy landscape. They have also been seen as valid and valuable replacements for the open access youth work facilities increasingly lost to young people in this period. In 2014 for example, Howard Williamson, a university professor of youth policy and a very experienced part-time youth worker, expressed himself ‘absolutely delighted’ at the appointment as Chief Executive of Step Up To Serve of someone he described as ‘untrammelled by youth work’s history and its sometimes precious adherence to principles whose time has possibly gone’. (Williamson, 2014).

Evaluation studies have suggested that the sponsoring organisations, the intended beneficiaries of the volunteering activities and the young people participating in them identify much that is positive about these programmes. (See for example Gov.UK, 2016; Offord, 2016a). What is long overdue, however, is a debate which moves beyond their given defining assumptions to explore critical questions about their approach as it is understood and presented within current policy and how far they are a sufficient replacement for the youth work provision lost since 2010.

Youth volunteering – some potential limits and dilemmas

Volunteering – in whose interests?

One defining feature of the policy ‘push’ for youth volunteering has been the assumption made by all the political parties and most commentators that it will, of course, be ‘a good thing’. Rationales for why young people should do it emphasise the gains both for ‘beneficiaries’ and, often even more prominently, for the young people themselves – particularly the attitudes and skills they will develop which will help then find their way into and through the employment market. Largely taken for granted so far, too – though questioned by a 2017 House of Commons Select Committee report on the NCS (House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee, 2017; Butler, 2017) – has been the proposition that, by inducting young people into volunteering at this stage of their development, these programmes can have an on-going, even lifelong, impact on them personally and also over time on British cultural attitudes to volunteering and more widely.

These assumptions, however, are run through with dilemmas which are rarely if ever made explicit within the overall policy discourse or with the young people involved. Particularly striking here is how the, again usually implicit, definitions of ‘social action’ and indeed of the ‘good’ it seeks to achieve have remained within politically ‘safe’ parameters. Occasionally an organisation has reported support for ‘volunteering’ which encourages a campaigning version of social action. In 2010 for example the Woodcraft Folk announced that it would

…enthusiastically support action taken by young people to protest against government cuts to education. This includes walkouts and non-violent direct action. (IDYW, 2011)

Albeit in more muted ways, Girlguiding UK has also encouraged its members to come together to, for example, oppose The Sun’s ‘page three girls’ (Puffett, 2013) and to highlight young women’s mental health problems. (Offord, 2015a).

These, however, emerge as the exceptions to a usually unspoken rule that ‘the ‘doing good’ of the volunteering to which young people will be introduced will take the form of such worthy but conforming endeavours as marching on Remembrance Day (defined by Step Up to Serve as ‘campaigning for causes (non-political)’ and collecting litter in a local neighbourhood. (Tyler-Rubinstein, et al, 2016: 19; 25; Youth United, 2017).

Volunteering – beyond the personal to the collective

Closely linked to these limited perceptions of the ‘what’ of volunteering are ones defining how it will be done. Much of the activity within the government programmes is clearly carried out in groups or ‘teams’ and/or through organisations. Beyond this terminology, however, is the deeply built neo-liberal starting point that the primary appeal needs to be to the young person as an individual. This, as suggested earlier, is thus weighted heavily towards what she or he will gain personally from the experience, with the ‘good’ done to others along the way, though acknowledged as valuable and valued, often in danger of seeming secondary. High on the agenda of so many of the programmes for motivating young people to join up seem to be prompts such as:

  • ‘What can I, the volunteer, get out of this?’
  • ‘Will I be able to add a line onto my CV?’
  • ‘Will I come away with a reference to support a course or job application?’
  • ‘Can I get some training or even make some personal contacts which will help ease me into paid work?’

These clearly are very important concerns for many of the individual young people joining the schemes. Such emphases, however, leave little room for focusing – as much social action and other forms of volunteering did the past – on using their shared face-to-face experiences to press for wider societal change. Indeed, such ‘strength-in-numbers’ perspectives could have some very personal and immediate resonances for a generation of young people whose futures are now so precarious, not least in those labour markets for which these schemes are purporting to prepare them. Where for example is the critical volunteering activity – the social action – in response to a highly exploitative ‘gig’ economy of zero hours contracts and poverty-level minimum wages into which so many of these young people are likely to ‘transition’? Or to a housing market where they have lost their right to housing benefits? Or to university system which will leave them thousands of pounds in debt?

In relation to these, where in fact do Remembrance Day parades and collecting litter really rate in the priorities of the young people who the current volunteering schemes are seeking to attract – especially those specially targeted as ‘disadvantaged’?

Volunteering: structured or improvised?

Fundamental, too, to these government interventions and how its sponsored organisations operate is the way they turn volunteering into a commodity to be marketed, in the process bureaucratising and even in some ways professionalising it. Because so many of the current schemes are requiring young people to commit to what are in effect unpaid ‘work’ roles, many of the recruitment and support structures are heavily reliant on complex management systems, marketing campaigns and (given that it is often minors who are to be recruited) essential regulatory and oversight procedures.

Where therefore, through such formalised structures and procedures, will young people come across that expression of volunteering, again with a very long history, which is unplanned, improvised and focused on self- and collectively identified ‘causes’ or issues? Where is the impetus for a volunteering which, in often spontaneous and unexpected ways, is generated by the here-and-now exchanges of friend with friend, neighbour with neighbour, work colleague with work colleague or just citizen with citizen? How likely is it that, through participation in NCS or Step Up To Serve, young people will even be made aware of such versions of volunteering and so come to see them as another way of contributing to the common good? Will the current schemes make it more likely that they will gain the relevant ‘standing-start’ understanding, skills or even confidence these might require; or be motivated to give their time without expecting any pay-back other than the intrinsic satisfactions of participating and (perhaps) experiencing some shared success in advancing an adopted cause?

And where in all this is the Youth Service – or the youth work?

For youth workers, two further questions however are also surely crucial. One is: what does this volunteering strategy and approach mean for state-funded Youth Services, including the local voluntary youth organisations which in the past, albeit to varying degrees, they have been supporting? To this, one response has to be that, especially at a time of an unrelenting government insistence on ‘austerity, the substantial amounts of state resources being absorbed by these programmes – particularly NCS – might not only have kept open many more year-round Youth Service facilities available in or close to young people’s own local territory. They could also have given these facilities the upgrading and updating which many of them have so long needed.

A second more practice-focused question for youth workers, however, is: even while recognising that those uniformed organisations not tied to the armed services are deeply embedded in this tradition, to what extent do the volunteering programmes more generally provide young people with settings and a practice which can be described as open access youth work? Though the evidence here is far from clear cut, some of what is known raises some doubts about such a claim:

  • How far, for example, are young people engaging on a genuinely voluntary basis – that is, outside adult authority pressures – given that one survey has suggested that in 2015 nearly 75 per cent of the participants found their way into volunteering via their school or college? (Offord, 2015b; 2016b).
  • How far are the programmes’ educational interventions building from and on the interests and concerns brought to them by the young people who are actually participating?
  • How far are the programmes starting from the process-focused presumption that, in their own right, relationship-building and inter-personal responsiveness – young person to young person and young person to adult – require at least as much dedicated attention as task- and programme-completion?

This latter question particularly needs explicit consideration since, as I discovered through some very testing youth work experience many years ago, running a youth volunteering ‘project’ can throw up some unexpected yet intrinsic tensions. Clearly, a bottom-line requirement for such a project has to be that its agreed commitments to the project’s beneficiaries are effectively (or at least not counter-productively) completed so that their needs and expectations are met as fully as possible. However, given that for a youth worker movement towards meeting these objectives may often – even mainly – have to be on the young people’s terms and at their pace, what if the developing relationships with them reveal that their needs have to take precedence over those of the beneficiaries? Where for example does the priority for attention need to be if (when) a young person shares a personal problem – which, as we now know from the Rotherham experience (Jay, 2014), could at one extreme be a serious as disclosure of abuse?

In other words, what if the process imperatives of dealing with what these young people are presenting now distract from or even block the commitment, made before workers have ever met any of the volunteers, to do good for beneficiaries? One research project which looked closely at the NCS concluded for example that, with the focus so much on participants gaining the skills and attitudes needed for ‘responsible’ adulthood, ‘the infrastructure framed the young people as becomings, rather than beings’ (Mills and Waite, 2017 – emphases in the original).

For NCS, Step Up To Serve and other government-funded youth volunteering programmes this suggests that, if they are to be genuine replacements for the disappearing open access facilities of local Youth Services, they will need to demonstrate a dedicated attention to another of the defining feature of much of the work of those facilities which was for example at least implicit in some of the research findings of Spence and Devanney (2006), Devlin and Gunning (2009) and de St Croix (2016). This is what thirty years ago HMI called an ‘on the wing’ responsiveness to the young people (DES, 1987) and especially to the here-and-now dimensions of the lives they are sharing with the workers, as they share them.

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Last Updated: 28 June 2017


[1] This is based on tracking a range of government and other announcements of grants specifically made available to unformed youth organisations between 2012 and 2017, many of them channelled through Youth United.

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