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The "Big Society" is alive and well in David Cameron's latest speech

The Prime Minister is creating a new public service.

What was most interesting in the Prime Minister's speech on Monday was his discussion of the importance of social networks in influencing life chances.

Traditionally, the Prime Minister focuses on the value of strong families and a good education, both of which are strongly associated with a lower likelihood of being in poverty. But there is a growing body of evidence that shows that having not just strong but also diverse social networks can have a small but significant effect on life outcomes.

In the United States, for instance, the Equality of Opportunity project has shown that children from disadvantaged ethnic minority backgrounds are more likely to experience higher social mobility if they live in mixed socio-economic backgrounds. Here in the UK, academics have found that people who have relationships with people from different neighbourhoods, ethnic backgrounds and employment are less likely to live in poverty.

As Bright Blue's recent report argued, the focus for policymakers should be building universal institutions where adults and children from different socio-economic backgrounds can come together to forge relationships: Children's Centres, nurseries and schools, for example. There is a particular opportunity for those on the centre-right here. It is common for those on the political left to argue that universality in taxpaying and benefit recipiency is crucial to forging social solidarity. But it is through relationships not transactions that a sense of commonality with others is formed. And institutions, sites of human interaction, have long been prized in conservative thinking.

It is interesting that the government is investing substantially more in the National Citizen Service, a programme introduced by the Coalition that provides opportunities for 16 and 17 year olds to volunteer for 30 hours. One of its main missions is to ensure young people interact with their peers from different social backgrounds. There is some early evidence on the benefits of NCS - both to the individual and wider society: for example, improvements in participant’s social skills and propensity to vote. Now the Government is extending it so, by 2021, nearly 60% of teenagers will be able to benefit from it. Slowly, National Citizen Service is maturing into a universal public service and a lasting legacy of Cameron's 'Big Society' vision.

It does seem that this trajectory for National Citizen Service has some similarities with the growth of other relatively new public services. Take formal childcare. From the mid-1990s, government responded to the evidence of the value of quality childcare to children’s long-term educational attainment and maternal employment. So the journey began of government subsidising formal childcare. Sir John Major’s Government took the first step by announcing vouchers for parents of 4 year olds. The New Labour government then injected a substantial amount of money – what the OECD described as “an unprecedented effort” – to ensure childcare became what Tony Blair called “the new frontier of the welfare state”. Now, parents can access an array of financial support - the childcare tax credit, the Early Years Free Entitlement and Tax Free Childcare.

Today, formal childcare is a mature and modern public service: with universality, competition and transparency. Nearly all 3 and 4 year olds access some form of formal childcare for at least 15 hours per week. Providers are inspected by Ofsted to ensure parents are given information to make informed choices about which childcare setting to send their child to. And there is real diversity of provision: the market is dominated by small private and voluntary organisations, and ranges from child-minders to large nursery schools.

It does strike me that the National Citizen Service is being built up by this government as the next major public service. Government subsidy is increasing to ensure a majority of teenagers can participate. In future, just with other public services, policymakers will then have to find ways of ensuring greater contestability between – and more accountability of - different providers of the National Citizen Service.

Today’s teenagers are experiencing the birth of a new public service, of a new universal institution to strengthen and diversify social networks.  

Ryan Shorthouse is the Director of Bright Blue, a think tank for liberal conservativism 

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"We repealed, then forgot": the long shadow of Section 28 homophobia

Why are deeply conservative views about the "promotion" of homosexuality still being reiterated to Scottish school pupils? 

Grim stories of LGBTI children being bullied in school are all too common. But one which emerged over the weekend garnered particular attention - because of the echoes of the infamous Section 28, nearly two decades after it was scrapped.

A 16-year-old pupil of a West Lothian school, who does not wish to be named, told Pink News that staff asked him to remove his small rainbow pride badge because, though they had "no problem" with his sexuality, it was not appropriate to "promote it" in school. It's a blast from the past - the rules against "promoting" homosexuality were repealed in 2000 in Scotland, but the long legacy of Section 28 seems hard to shake off. 

The local authority responsible said in a statement that non-school related badges are not permitted on uniforms, and says it is "committed to equal rights for LGBT people". 

The small badge depicted a rainbow-striped heart, which the pupil said he had brought back from the Edinburgh Pride march the previous weekend. He reportedly "no longer feels comfortable going to school", and said homophobia from staff members felt "much more scar[y] than when I encountered the same from other pupils". 

At a time when four Scottish party leaders are gay, and the new Westminster parliament included a record number of LGBTQ MPs, the political world is making progress in promoting equality. But education, it seems, has not kept up. According to research from LGBT rights campaigners Stonewall, 40 per cent of LGBT pupils across the UK reported being taught nothing about LGBT issues at school. Among trans students, 44 per cent said school staff didn’t know what "trans" even means.

The need for teacher training and curriculum reform is at the top of campaigners' agendas. "We're disappointed but not surprised by this example," says Jordan Daly, the co-founder of Time for Inclusive Education [TIE]. His grassroots campaign focuses on making politicians and wider society aware of the reality LGBTI school students in Scotland face. "We're in schools on a monthly basis, so we know this is by no means an isolated incident." 

Studies have repeatedly shown a startling level of self-harm and mental illness reported by LGBTI school students. Trans students are particularly at risk. In 2015, Daly and colleagues began a tour of schools. Shocking stories included one in which a teacher singled out a trans pupils for ridicule in front of the class. More commonly, though, staff told them the same story: we just don't know what we're allowed to say about gay relationships. 

This is the point, according to Daly - retraining, or rather the lack of it. For some of those teachers trained during the 1980s and 1990s, when Section 28 prevented local authorities from "promoting homosexuality", confusion still reigns about what they can and cannot teach - or even mention in front of their pupils. 

The infamous clause was specific in its homophobia: the "acceptability of homosexuality as a pretended family relationship" could not be mentioned in schools. But it's been 17 years since the clause was repealed in Scotland - indeed, it was one of the very first acts of the new Scottish Parliament (the rest of the UK followed suit three years later). Why are we still hearing this archaic language? 

"We repealed, we clapped and cheered, and then we just forgot," Daly says. After the bitter campaign in Scotland, in which an alliance of churches led by millionaire businessman Brian Souter poured money into "Keeping the Clause", the government was pleased with its victory, which seemed to establish Holyrood as a progressive political space early on in the life of the parliament. But without updating the curriculum or retraining teaching staff, Daly argues, it left a "massive vacuum" of uncertainty. 

The Stonewall research suggests a similar confusion is likely across the UK. Daly doesn't believe the situation in Scotland is notably worse than in England, and disputes the oft-cited allegation that the issue is somehow worse in Scotland's denominational schools. Homophobia may be "wrapped up in the language of religious belief" in certain schools, he says, but it's "just as much of a problem elsewhere. The TIE campaign doesn't have different strategies for different schools." 

After initial disappointments - their thousands-strong petition to change the curriculum was thrown out by parliament in 2016 - the campaign has won the support of leaders such as Nicola Sturgeon and Kezia Dugdale, and recently, the backing of a majority of MSPs. The Scottish government has set up a working group, and promised a national strategy. 

But for Daly, who himself struggled at a young age with his sexuality and society's failure to accept it, the matter remains an urgent one.  At just 21, he can reel off countless painful stories of young LGBTI students - some of which end in tragedy. One of the saddest elements of the story from St Kentigern's is that the pupil claimed his school was the safest place he had to express his identity, because he was not out at home. Perhaps for a gay pupil in ten years time, that will be a guarantee. 

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