Education Quandary: 'Why don't we bring in a national community service scheme for all school leavers?

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This reader wonders why we aren't all debating such a scheme when it is obvious – to him – that it would help to heal the fractures in society and give all young people a sense of common purpose. But where has he been this past decade or so? The idea was being kicked around by Labour years ago, and proposals were put before Parliament by the late Tony Banks in 2003.

By 2005, Gordon Brown was launching a £150m scheme to enthuse a million young volunteers. Prince Charles had a stab at the idea in 2006, and last year David Cameron was proposing a kind of compulsory national community military service.

Across the political spectrum, people see huge benefits from involving young people in voluntary work. One of the biggest pay-offs could be putting all that seething testosterone of young male adulthood to useful work. Another benefit would be to unite young people from every race and class in the sense that the future of their country could be something to do with them.

But critics say it would contravene personal liberty, and that it would be counterproductive to make community work compulsory. Others point to the cost, the bureaucracy, the problems with creating good opportunities and the nightmare logistics of matching faces to places. All these are big problems, and a half-hearted programme of make-do placements would obviously do more harm than good. Big political will would need to be behind any such scheme to make it work.

But if one could be set up that was flexible, creative and purposeful, the benefits would be enormous. Maybe we should think about putting in place a compulsory three- or four-month placement for everyone in social, community or environmental work before, say, the age of 25?

Readers' advice

Maybe there should be community service within A-levels and GCSEs, as there is in some international qualifications such as the International Baccalaureate, where you have to do 120 hours of CAS (Community Active Service). This country is all me, me, me; maybe it could become less selfish if people were taught to help others through school schemes and by their families.

Jane George, Birmingham

Why restrict it to school-leavers? The community would benefit more if you included the unemployed.

M Crawford, Orkney

This makes me so angry. The state interferes with everything these days. It tries to tell us what to eat and force us all to go jogging. The last thing young people need when they leave school and start to take responsibility for their own lives is the politicians telling them how do it.

William Hoggard, Berkshire

This is worth talking about. Schoolchildren can learn about citizenship but they don't go out in the community. I think school-leavers should do a compulsory six months in the Scouts, putting lessons into practice and learning independence, leadership, cooking, survival, and teamwork with older people.

Annie O'Brien, Wiltshire

Next Week's Quandary

Dear Hilary, My husband, who's 51, wants to switch from IT management, which he hates, to become a secondary-school science teacher. He knows schools and loves science, and wants to share this passion with young people. Can he do it? If so, should he do a training year or go down the on-the-job training route? Money isn't a problem.

Send your letters or quandaries to Hilary Wilce, to arrive no later than Monday 18 February, to 'The Independent', Education Desk, Independent House, 191 Marsh Wall, London E14 9RS; or fax 020-7005 2143; or email Please include your postal address. Readers whose letters are printed will receive a Collins Paperback English Dictionary 5th Edition