Sophie Livingstone: Volunteering to bridge the social divide

Do sufficient young people have the skills that they need to succeed?
Do sufficient young people have the skills that they need to succeed?
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THE latest report from the Social Mobility Commission, Time to Change, made for depressing but unsurprising reading. Inequality has been on government agendas for years, but we have yet to see any real progress.

Educational inequality is still a huge problem in our schools and the attainment gap between the wealthiest children and poorest is not closing, despite additional targeted funding.

Even though we’ve seen some progress at primary level at closing the attainment gap, at current rates of progress it will still take 15 years before all children are school-ready by the age of five and 40 years before the attainment gap between the wealthiest children and those on free school meals at that age is closed.

At GCSE and A-Level, there is currently no prospect of the gap between free school meal and non-free school meal children being eliminated. In higher education, it will take 80 years before the gap is eliminated.

The Social Mobility Commission’s reports are important to draw attention to these shocking statistics, but it’s much more important to see action being taken to change them.

There are so many things that need to happen to address social mobility – it’s at the heart of so many issues we’re facing. But I don’t believe we will improve social mobility while we live such segregated lives, particularly in diverse cities. We talk about the social media bubble, but we generally spend our daily lives in a bubble too, although not always through choice.

The public’s response to the Grenfell Tower fire and the recent terror attacks have been heart-warming – this is something Britain is good at.

I sit on the Board of the Royal Voluntary Service, formed as the WRVS in response to the domestic challenges of the Second World War, and this country has a strong history of communities coming together in the wake of disasters to help each other.

However it shouldn’t take these terrible events for people to reach out to each other and help those most in need. We need to be doing this on a daily basis and make it the norm, rather than a reaction. We need lots of opportunities to give back across all ages, stages and settings.

Young people are the most acutely affected by a lack of social mobility and the effects of educational inequality don’t wear off when they go on to work. So why not give them the opportunity to give their time to their local community, instead perhaps of going abroad, and make a positive transition from education to employment?

The charity I head up, City Year UK, engages dedicated and altruistic young people to volunteer full-time for a year in schools in disadvantaged communities in the country.

They make a huge difference to the pupils and through serving as mentors, role models and tutors, the young volunteers themselves develop the leadership and resilience needed to continue to tackle the UK’s pressing social issues.

We know that this model makes a difference to the pupils we serve in schools, and to the young people who volunteer, who will go on to continue to create positive change in their communities as they move on into the world of work. We’ve found that pupils in primary and secondary schools who receive mentoring and near-peer support improve their academic attainment, behaviour and future outlook.

I strongly believe that more full-time volunteering opportunities, open to all, and with structured support for volunteers, can play an important role in breaking down barriers between communities and tackling issues.

We are calling on the Government to introduce legal recognition for those young people who undertake social action full-time, as they are currently classified as NEET – hardly a great recognition for their contribution. The Government’s review into full-time social action will present its findings later this year and I really hope to see legal recognition for full-time volunteers as one of the recommendations.

Young people aged 18 to 24 are more likely than older generations to engage in volunteering. The third sector has an important role to play in engaging people, particularly this age group, in building cross-community ties and bridging social capital, playing a significant part in addressing the challenges outlined in the Commission’s social mobility report.