Just before the general election was declared, the Minister for Civil Society, Rob Wilson, launched a review of full time volunteering and announced its chair as Steve Holliday, formerly of National Grid.  Although the review is on hold for the moment, many of us in the full time volunteering sector really hope that it will indeed be reinstated after June 8.

Unlike so many of our European neighbours, the UK has no formal, state supported civic service which provides full time volunteering opportunities for young people in the 18 to 25+ age group.  We know that many of these civic service organisations were set up as an alternative to compulsory military service but even after this was abolished the civic service opportunities continued and became an integral part of the lives of very many young people across the Continent of Europe.

In the UK, a number of organisations provide full time volunteering opportunities for young people.   Volunteering Matters, my own organisation, has been doing this for over 50 years and in any one year, provides around 300 such places.  Our placements are generally but not necessarily always in health and social care settings with volunteers assisting students with a physical disability to continue their studies, working in a school for young people with cerebral palsy, befriending young people – just as a few examples.  City Year UK provides opportunities for young people to volunteer in a school setting and combine their volunteering with personal development.  Vinspired also provides a number of full time volunteering opportunities.  These opportunities are funded in a number of ways – contributions from individuals from their personal budgets, contributions from schools and local authorities.  But no state investment goes into these opportunities in the UK and this is the biggest difference between us and the rest of Europe.

I had the privilege to attend a recent session at the Belgian Senate.  One of Volonteurope’s member organisations – the Platform for Civic Service – organised the session because they have also been lobbying for a legislative framework for the civic service in Belgium.  They have been running a pilot programme.  We heard from a range of organisations from France, Germany, Italy and Luxembourg, who described in great detail the ways in which their civic service is organised and funded.  Of course, the thing that government investment means is that very high numbers of young people are able to take up these opportunities, making six months to a year of civic service a key rite of passage for young people in these countries. For example, Volonteurope member from France, La Ligue de l’enseignement, in 2016 engaged over 5,200 young people in their civic service.

A legislative framework is important and we at Volunteering Matters will join with City Year UK and other organisations to encourage this development in the UK as a result of the review.  However, what the session in Brussels last week made me consider was how important all the other aspects of the programme are – ensuring that the young people have the best possible volunteering experience possible, recognising their achievements and the skills they have gained during their full time volunteering opportunity, developing the capacity of organisations to host civic service placements and incentivising them to offer placements to young people.  And perhaps the most important aspect of developing this programme – ensuring that young people who do not typically volunteer for all sorts of reasons are given easy access to opportunities.  So young people from disadvantaged backgrounds, who might have been involved with the youth justice system, who are not in education, employment or training, who are disabled or in any other way prevented from taking up a full time volunteering opportunity must be a priority.  How can we break down these barriers?  We can learn lessons from our colleagues in France, Germany, Italy, Belgium and Luxembourg.  We can make the programme flexible offering different kinds of placements if that would suit the young person’s circumstances.  We can provide the young person with intensive preparation, mentoring and follow up.  We can make sure that they are at no financial disadvantage when they take up a volunteering opportunity.

We already have a fantastic National Citizens’ Service programme offering opportunities to 16 and 17 year olds to take part in a residential placement and to develop their own social action project.  It would be a natural progression on their volunteering journey if when these young people reached 18, they were able to take up a full time volunteering opportunity with no disadvantage to them but only advantages in terms of the skills and experience they would gain and the benefit to communities all across the UK that would ensue.

And wouldn’t it be fabulous if our young people in the UK had more access to volunteering opportunities in Europe and further afield.  Colleagues in VSO already offer opportunities to volunteer abroad and the EU Aid Volunteers programme will also eventually offer opportunities for young people in the UK to volunteer at home and abroad.   But we must ensure that this is opportunity for the many and not only for the privileged few!