Wednesday, 17 August 2011

Seriously, (I'm not the only one) - is it illiberal to think community service may be a good thing?

Commenting on Richard Morris's excellent blog yesterday has really got me thinking about my position in relation to national service.  It feels weird that I am not straight away against it.  I think back 9 or 10 years ago to when I was studying for my GCSEs and the period after.  In that period you do a couple of weeks work experience which I think is good to help you adapt to the working world and I wonder would some community service be that much different?  

Looking back I think I would have benefited from a couple of weeks helping out my community straight after my GCSEs.  That period between school and sixth form was a long summer, I tried to get a job but unemployment in my region was high.  A new Tesco opened up offering 300 jobs, however over 2,000 people applied - as a kid straight from school (with excellent grades and therefore unlikely to hang around for a long time) I didn't feel that I stood much chance - and didn't even get an interview.  (I'd like to highlight here that it has always been hard for young people to get onto the employment ladder so to speak - not a recent phenomenon post coalition).  I think if I had spent 2 - 4 weeks of that summer helping my community then it would have benefited me as a person as well as my community.  That said, the only work I did whilst at University (and at home during the breaks) was charity work - I couldn't find paying jobs easily so wanted to help people while I had the free time.  I know not everyone would like that.

So, I think it would have been good for me, but compulsory?  Well, I think that if it were optional the first to opt out would be those the Government had aimed it at in the first place as such I feel it should be all or nothing.  This then feels very illiberal - but surely teenagers have been forced to stay in school for this period - many against their will, so why should this be different?  I get that the obvious personal benefit is less apparent then learning but still.  So what would it take for me to potentially support it fully?  
  • Firstly, I could never support any forced military service.
  • There would need to be choice.  Rather than forcing a particular activity on a person they should have a range to chose from that they would prefer.
  • The time period to be fairly short - two weeks would be fine I think.
  • The activities shouldn't be perceived as punishments - not just tasks that people don't want to do and as such the council want cheep labour, but tasks that can genuinely benefit the community.  
  • If you paid them (even a token amount) it would probably boost their self esteem and rather than just doing it for the fuzzy warm feeling they would have another reason to think it may be worth it.
However, there would be numerous problems.  Firstly, I could see it being hellishly difficult to administer.  One would expect (for a programme as per my suggestions above) that schools would be the best place for it.  However that would be costly still.  Also my school was terrible at assisting with finding us work experience, so much so that I spent my second week in school.  Fortunately as a good pupil I was allowed to spend my time in the music room (where I spent my break and lunch periods normally), working on my coursework, helping the teacher's by marking younger student's work and since it was the week before Christmas watching Shrek and also rehearsing for the school performance (which took up the whole Monday).  The others who had to return to school didn't have such an enjoyable week by all accounts.  

I also feel it would be impossible to enforce.  Kids play truant from school, this would be easier if they didn't want to do it.  Keeping track of who has completed it would be a bureaucratic nightmare.  

Would it be worth the hassle?  Possibly.  Would it be cost effective and therefore could we afford it (given the current climate)? Probably not.  Do I support it?  In principle maybe, in reality, I probably wouldn't.  If it is introduced and then ends up being like national service I know I wouldn't.  I have the image of it being introduced and treated almost as a punishment for the child reaching a particular age rather than as a chance for them to develop in a mutually beneficial way.  If it does come in, I'll have a look at what they propose and make my mind up then - which maybe I should have just stuck to all along!

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