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Policymakers need to step up to serve

03 June 2015

Young people are all too often caught in a catch 22 position. They can’t find a job because they don’t have enough experience, but they can’t get experience without a job. Experience doesn’t only need to come from employment or work placements. Social action offers the opportunity for young people to learn the skills needed to succeed in their future working life. This week is National Volunteering Week, and is the perfect opportunity to highlight the importance social action can have on individual students, and the wider community. Last year, AoC signed up to being a partner with Step Up To Serve, a campaign backed by HRH The Prince of Wales, aiming to get every young person in the UK to take part in social action. Their slogan is #iwill and is used to inspire individuals and organisations to pledge their support to the campaign. At AoC, we’ve pledged to the promote youth social action amongst our member colleges. College students are already leading the way when it comes to social action. We have worked with the National Union of Students (NUS) to carry out research with 16 to 20-year-old college students across the country. Of the 1,200 respondents, 57% currently volunteer, 9% would like to and 27% had done so in the past. A similar NUS survey of university students last year found that 31% were volunteers. Ipsos MORI led the #iwill campaign’s first Youth Social Action survey of 10 to 20-year-olds and found that 40% were participating in meaningful social action across the UK. So further education and sixth form college students are already doing more than most. With such enthusiasm amongst college students to get involved in social action, how can we make sure that this work is valued, recognised and more widely encouraged? High-quality youth social action must be recognised as of equal importance to work experience. The skills and experience developed, such as team work and communications, are invaluable to future employers. Big businesses in the UK, like the National Grid and O2, have already pledged their support to Step Up To Serve’s #iwill campaign, and are actively recruiting young people who have developed the skills and character they’re looking for through participating in social action. Many college principals are already on board with the positive impact youth social action can have on developing the skills employers are looking for and at the same time recognise the benefits of young people engaging positively within their communities. East Kent College, for example, makes social action a part of every student’s activities, putting aside three days a year specifically for voluntary work. Bexley College and East Norfolk College have gone further and introduced social action as an integral part of a student’s study programmes. The difficulty is that policymakers and inspectors simply focus on work experience as the way of preparing young people for employment and developing the often called ‘soft skills’ that employers say they need. Social action needs to be recognised and valued by them in exactly the same way. Perhaps it is time for policymakers to step up to serve as well as colleges and their students. Gill Clipson is the Deputy Chief Executive of the Association of Colleges.