Full-time volunteers - Our response to the Holliday review

Our Chief Executive Oonagh Aitken responds to the Holliday Review of Full Time Social Action on behalf of Volunteering Matters, the UK’s leading provider of full time volunteering opportunities.

Full time volunteering has been at the heart of what we do since we began as a charity in 1962.  Over the years, thousands of young people have given six to twelve months of their lives in order to help people in the UK in challenging circumstances.  Talk to many of them, as I have, and you’ll hear that it was often a life-changing experience.

So when the last government asked Steve Holliday to produce a report on the state of full time volunteering for young people – referred to in the report as Full Time Social Action – we were hopeful that its life-changing potential would be fully recognised.  Perhaps this would this be the moment when the UK stepped up its ambition, so that young people in the UK would enjoy the same kind of opportunities as their peers in Germany, France or Italy.

This weekend, Steve Holliday published his review.  Its vision is bold:

“Our vision is of a society where all young people (no matter what their background, where they live, what school they attend or educational achievements) are encouraged to participate in social action, and by doing so, create a habit for life.”

Its proposals?  Not quite so bold.  We have been amongst the charities flagging our concerns about the current legal and administrative framework for full time volunteering, which is grey and discouraging, where it could be clear and encouraging – both for potential young volunteers and to programme providers.  The report does not recommend any changes to legislation; and that’s a shame.  It would have been a powerful signal of seriousness.  But given that legislative change isn’t coming any time soon, it makes it doubly important that we focus on the priorities for reform that the report does set out. There is real meat here.

I’m particularly pleased that the report stresses the importance of inclusion. It can’t just be a great gap year experience for confident and high achieving young people.  It has to be a springboard for all young people, particularly those who haven’t had a great start in life, and who wouldn’t immediately see volunteering as something for them. We know from our own recent research – summarised in the Barriers and Benefits report – that the people who could benefit most from volunteering are too often those who are least likely to participate.  An away from home placement for six months can be an exciting opportunity for worldly young people with strong family support.  But going away and committing for such a long time might actually be a barrier for young people from less privileged backgrounds.  I’m delighted to say that our refreshed full time volunteering offer, which we’ll be talking more about in March, is designed precisely to offer the types of flexible opportunities that Steve Holliday says are essential.  We also think that our active involvement in the government’s social mobility action plan, through the social mobility action areas, puts us in a good place to test and then replicate some of these new models.

The report’s focus on consistent quality and long term impact evidence is also fully in line with how we’re developing our offer.  We will be introducing a new Full Time Volunteering Pledge as part of our agreement with new volunteers, which we think will provide just the type of clarity about standards and expectations that the report calls for. Our new Impact Framework will enable us to build even more sensitive and long-term tracking and feedback mechanisms into what we do.

Steve Holliday’s report hasn’t solved all the problems affecting youth social action in this country. But it has set out some of the most important challenges that we need to tackle if we’re going to move forward.  As a candid and critical friend to government and as an imaginative partner with other charities in this area, we’re determined to meet those challenges.