How the best of British youth could change the face of our public services

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The Independent Online
Many schools, hospitals and communities could be transformed this year by a rapid expansion in the numbers of young people voluntarily giving their time to help them.

The Conservatives have pledged that by the end of 1997, everyone between the ages of 15 and 25 who wants to give their time should be able to. Last month, the Government gave pounds 3m to fund local "volunteer facilitators".

Even if they lose the election, the initiative will continue as Labour has announced plans to have 100,000 young people involved in "citizens' service" by the millennium. The Liberal Democrats gave their backing to the idea some time ago.

Elisabeth Hoodless, executive director of the charity Community Service Volunteers, said yesterday that volunteering was an idea whose time has come.

To show how the politicians' pledges can be put into practice, the charity has just completed the first year of pilot projects. In Cardiff, Sunderland and the London borough of Southwark, around 150 young people have been helping in schools, restoring gardens and calming waiting-room nerves in hospitals.

Mrs Hoodless said: "What has been remarkable in the projects is the joy with which professionals have welcomed young people to help raise reading levels, or calm waiting areas in hospitals or care for people with learning difficulties."

A problem with volunteers in the past was a reputation for unreliability, but good organisation had overcome that. "I think we've made a real breakthrough," she said.

At Keyworth primary school in Southwark, south London, Juliana Braithwaite applied mascara to the eyes of Emily Tume, 10, as her classmates babbled excitedly, preparing to perform the musical Grease.

Ms Braithwaite, 25, has just been taken on to work 10 hours a week at the school after proving a dedicated volunteer with the Southwark pilot project. She is still giving her own time in the afternoons while she waits to take a bachelor of education course next September.

"I've always been interested in teaching and thought it would be a good idea to get to know a bit more about the needs of young children. It's helped me to decide if this is the sort of career I really want to go into."

She believed many young people could benefit, but not if the idea becomes just another government scheme.

Christina Albrecht, the head teacher, agreed. "It makes tons of difference to the school. It enables all the extra bits to happen. We managed before but we couldn't do as much. We've had more trips in this last term than in all the 10 years I've been head."

One of the teachers, Andrea Inniss, said she could see literacy levels rising in her classroom as the children received more attention. Her colleague Kim Himdocha teaches one child who had never used the past tense because it was not used at home. He is beginning to now. "A volunteer can make gentle reminders in a way that as a teacher with 30 children you cannot," she said.

Similar success stories are claimed for the projects in Cardiff and Sunderland which were developed to show how citizen's service could be organised, ensuring a prototype is in place for expansion, whoever wins the election.

Elisabeth Hoodless said: "What we're talking about is young people as a matter of choice giving a period of service to the communities they live in which is good for them and good for the community."