Empowering young people with vital life skills

The Labour peer and former Home Secretary explains why the principles of citizenship must be upheld and instilled in young people. 

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Our young people are growing up in a country that is increasingly divided and uncertain. The future of the labour market can seem bleak with the uncertainty that Brexit brings in the years ahead. It is the responsibility of all of us who care about the next generation to support them to develop the skills and capabilities that will help young people overcome these challenges of our age. The right investment now will help unite us and provide hope for the future.

As a former Education Secretary, you might expect me to believe that the answer is “education, education, education”. In one sense this is right: we need to invest in our schools, support our teachers and help our young people with their academic studies. But just as importantly, we need to help our young people to become more confident, connected and compassionate citizens. This won’t just happen: we need broader investment in life skills and citizenship.

Teaching citizenship and democracy and teaching it well, is an essential starting point which is neglected at our peril. That’s why alongside the work I have done to support academic learning – cutting class sizes and improving literacy and numeracy – I have also focussed on helping young people to develop their broader character and citizenship. From Millennium Volunteers to citizenship education in schools, this is the work that I think addresses some of our most important challenges as a nation.

I am also a keen supporter and board member of National Citizen Service, perhaps the most ambitious national effort we have had at helping our young people learn life lessons beyond the classroom. The idea of national citizen service featured in the 1997 Labour manifesto, but this programme was introduced by David Cameron in 2010. It enjoys cross-party support enshrined in legislation – the National Citizen Service Act 2017 – and a Royal Charter, because the principles behind it have deep roots in our country and it represents a practical way to build stronger communities and prepare our young people for the future. It does this in three ways: building connections, developing life skills and being active citizens.

First, building connections. NCS brings young people from all backgrounds together for a shared experience at 16 after GCSE exams. Our school system is segregated by income, ethnicity, and religion. NCS bridges these divides, attracting young people from different schools and different backgrounds to explore their shared humanity and their shared citizenship. It all starts with an outward bound adventure week away from home that pushes you out of your comfort zone and bonds the team together. Over four weeks these young people become lifelong friends.

Second, developing life skills. The second week of NCS takes place in university halls of residence. Young people are supported to cook their own meals and learn to live independently. They are taught practical skills such as public speaking and financial literacy. Just as important as these tangible skills, NCS supports them to work well in diverse teams and develops their confidence.

Third, being active citizens. The third and fourth week of NCS sees the young people return to their community. They get a feel for the social issues in their local area, visiting local charities, businesses and public services. Some of the most moving moments are when the young people connect with the elderly in care homes. They meet politicians and learn about the importance of democratic engagement, with many registering to vote. Together as a team, they design and deliver a practical project to make their community a better place. This social action not only develops the practical skills that come from turning an idea into reality. More importantly, it shows the young people that they can be change makers and that citizenship is about responsibilities as well as rights.

The impact of this investment in young people’s futures is remarkable. In terms of building connections, eight in 10 NCS participants feel more positive about people from different backgrounds after taking part, and eight in 10 remain in touch with their new friends even two years on. When it comes to life skills, three out of four NCS graduates feel more confident about getting a job. And recent research using data from UCAS showed that, controlling for other factors, NCS graduates were 12 per cent more likely to get into university, rising to almost 50 per cent for the poorest fifth of young people.

NCS has also been shown to support active citizenship. NCS graduates volunteer for an additional seven hours a month. The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently found that 16-24 year olds have moved from being the least likely age range to volunteer in 2000, to the most likely in 2015, and both the ONS and NCVO cite NCS in their analysis of this data.

There are many initiatives that support young people to be their best and we should cherish them all. What sets NCS apart is that government funding has allowed it to grow rapidly and reach a mass of young people from all backgrounds. This is particularly important because we know that too few young people from poorer backgrounds are taking part in extra curricular programmes that help them build these vital life skills. Since its creation just seven years ago, NCS has reached more than 300,000 teenagers, making it the largest and fastest growing programme for young people of this age in our country. This year alone, it will reach more than 100,000 teenagers.

There are many things to be worried about in our country today, but I am incredibly proud to have played a small part in building NCS as a programme that is making a practical difference to some of our most urgent social issues. Given the scale of the challenge we face, we need NCS to become a rite of passage for all young people. We cannot stand by and let division and mistrust grow and fester. We cannot wait for the next generation’s jobs to be replaced by robots and not skill them for the jobs of tomorrow. Developing life skills and citizenship cannot be optional extras in the twenty first century.

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