In 1971, at the age of 17, I had an opportunity that had nothing to do with school but that proved to be the most important educational experience of my life. It took me out of my comfort zone, exposed me to working with people from completely different backgrounds and life experiences and gave me, for the first time, a sense of what I might be good at in my working life. Part of the value was to shake me out of some of the cosiness of my middle-class upbringing and my public-school education. Conversely, I know others for whom the same kind of experience was formative because it took them out of the self-limitation which had come from growing up in a world of material poverty and poverty of expectation. The experience was working as a fulltime community service volunteer in my case in a market ton in Shropshire with a growing immigrant population. To this day I believe that it is the kind of opportunity that every young adult should have, stirring people like me out of their entitlement mentality and shaking others out of their pessimism about their own potential path.
I was taken back to this experience on reading about a new OECD report on social mobility in education in an excellent article in The Times by Jenni Russell (Social Mobility drives are all talk and no action, 25th October, Times p26). According to Russell the report describes a huge class divide, with disadvantaged children who are educated together performing worse than those in schools with middle class children. ‘By 15 these children are 2.5 years behind their peers. The OECD found that the poorest pupils were unhappier and more discouraged than those in other developed countries, greatly affecting their chances of success. Fewer than 1 in 6 feel resilient, satisfied with their lives and integrated at school, compared with an OECD average of one in four. In the Netherlands the figure is 50 per cent.’
Russell lists a series of policy measures ranging from excellent nursery education, great teachers in bad schools, vocational careers, high quality retraining to compensate for unstable jobs. All are sensible suggestions. All would be reinforced by introducing a period of citizen’s service required of every young adult between the age of, say, 16 and 25 as a condition for post-25 entitlement to full social benefits.
People could take on roles in caring. projects involved in recycling, climate change mitigation, or conservation. They could assist in classrooms or work as support staff on anti-loneliness programmes, or supplement nursing staff as they comforted patients on trolleys awaiting admission to our overstretched hospitals. They could work for GP practices as they start to move on ‘social prescribing’ programmes where pills are replaced by activity.
A key criterion would be that some part of the service would take people away from their own comfort zone –to experience up and down the social scale, and across the diversity of race and class how differently lives are led and how other citizens experience life.
The benefits? People living in Bradford who only knew Bradford might experience life in Kent or Surrey. And vice versa. Citizens might feel they belonged to one country. The value of neighbourliness would be reasserted. Minority communities would find it harder to build a siege mentality. Tens of thousands would, by chance, bump into a need and discover a skill that could be part of their future career.
The costs? I last assessed these in a pamphlet thirty years ago. (it was called Count Us In and it was published by the Tawney Society). The upfront costs would be huge. The payback over 15 years in reduced prison population, social integration, individual resilience and self-worth would be the best investment any government could make in reducing social disorder, crime and extremism in the years ahead. Maybe one of the elected mayors around the country will be bold enough to try this.
Perhaps as a nation we haven’t yet hit the rock bottom in terms of discontent and economic stagnation. But it seems to be coming. And when it does, and the electorate are ready for radical solutions, at least let’s put this on the agenda to compete with the populists’ panaceas.