College fee incentive to 'gap year' volunteers

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The Independent Online

Thousands of young people who volunteer for community service during their "gap year" would have their university fees paid under a scheme to be unveiled by a think-tank today.

Thousands of young people who volunteer for community service during their "gap year" would have their university fees paid under a scheme to be unveiled by a think-tank today.

The £110m plan would be aimed at teenagers from working-class backgrounds in an effort to increase participation in higher education. The "experience year" scheme, outlined in a pamphlet by the Social Market Foundation, is based on a model in the United States where businesses sponsor young people.

Ministers are likely to give the plan a sympathetic hearing. David Blunkett, the Home Secretary, is a keen advocate of increasing civic responsibility among the young.

The report suggests earmarking 10,000 "experience year" places a year, with 7,000 of those for people from a working-class background.

Participants would be paid an allowance of £6,000 if they volunteered for the full year, and an education allowance of £4,000 at the end of the year which could be used to pay tuition fees. Activities run by organisations such as Community Service Volunteers or Voluntary Services Overseas would qualify as "experience year" projects.

"Whether through teaching or tutoring a child, walking a beat with a community warden, building walls or cleaning a stream in the Lake District with the National Trust, participants could develop the civic and social skills to last for a lifetime of public work, wherever they may go once they complete their experience year," the pamphlet says.

"Business could sponsor a part-year internship component to the experience year programme," it adds. "Timberland in the US, for example, provides free clothing and shoes for Americorps [the US name for a similar programme] members, making participation more invitingto young people."

Selina Chen and Kate Bell, the authors of the pamphlet, argue that the programme could help Tony Blair meet his target for 50 per cent of young people to receive a university education.

The scheme would reduce the average debt incurred by students to £9,000 a year."These levels are small in comparison to the average premium that a graduate can expect to earn over a lifetime, which has been put at £250,000," the pamphlet says.

"However, facing the immediate burden of repaying such high levels of debt at the start of one's working life is daunting and poses barriers to many graduates. Experience year would cut the average debt that a student leaving university bears."

* State schools provide better value for money than independent fee-paying schools, according to a report today by an education adviser to the last Conservative government.

Higher spending on education does not necessarily mean better results, John Marks argues in the report,Standards and Spending, Dispelling the Spending Orthodoxy. He says state sixth forms can achieve top A-level grades for two-thirds of the cost of independent schools.

Although independent school pupils achieved higher results overall, state school students performed better, considering the amount spent on their education, Dr Marks says. He calculated that almost £6,000 was spent in the state sector to achieve an A-grade at A-level, compared with more than £9,000 in an independent school.

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