The red coats


A team of US educationalists recently visited London to see the City Year programme in action – a national service movement that sees young people volunteering their time as mentors and role-models in schools. Sophie Livingstone introduces the initiative.

Could national service inspire your pupils and raise school standards? Don’t despair. I am not advocating a return of compulsory drafting to the army, popular as that might be for some of our right wing press. But national civic service, where young people serve their communities intensively and aim to tackle a deeply entrenched social problem, is definitely worth a more serious look.

?This week a delegation of US national service activists, including senior White House officials who served under Clinton, Bush and Obama visited the UK to talk about their experiences leading up to the Edward M Kennedy Serve America Act, the landmark legislation that created Americorps and which now underpins President Obama’s national service programmes.?

Their message was powerful. They urged MPs and policy-makers not to overlook the enormous potential of Britain’s young people to act as a catalyst for social change.

They encouraged Westminster to develop policies that seek to harness the energy of young people and to inspire them to give back to their communities. 

In America, successful service programmes treat young people as an untapped resource that can bring fresh innovation to major issues, such as their high school dropout crisis. They start from the perspective that young people can be a positive resource, not a problem to be solved. It is a compelling argument and there could be huge benefits to UK schools and teachers if we embraced the concept of a national civic service and applied it to our own classrooms. 

City Year is a national service movement which started in Boston as a small social enterprise but which now operates across most of the US. 

Thanks to private sponsorship and a small group of inspiring heads that took the plunge, City Year has also been operating in London schools since 2010. 

We recruit 18 to 25-year-old volunteers who dedicate a year of voluntary service to work as tutors, mentors, role models and leaders of after-school programmes. 

As “near-peers”, the volunteers – known as “corps members” – provide classroom support and individual mentoring to help children improve their attendance, behaviour and curriculum performance. The teachers we work alongside have become our best ambassadors. 

They appreciate the extra resource that a team of young people can bring to a school staff team, but the best feedback is about how the energy, enthusiasm and dynamism of young people can have a transformative impact on the school environment and the pupils they support.?

Heads allocate each corps member a list of focus children that require additional help either academically, emotionally or behaviourally. Corps members then work with teachers to develop individual strategies to support the pupils. 

This could be intensive literacy support or simply engaging children at break times or after school to improve their confidence. We are very clear at the outset that young people who join us are entering into a “something for something” relationship. In return for their stint of dedicated school service, each corps member benefits from 40 days of personal development activities plus a weekly contribution of £100 to their living costs.

?Every Friday, the corps comes together for personal development days. Activities designed to help volunteers grow as leaders and to support their transition from education to career are delivered, as well as ongoing training to help them operate best in schools.

The London heads we have partnered with have been fantastic at recognising the role that they can play in supporting this development. They understand the double-benefit nature of the programme and have worked with us to give additional responsibilities to corps members to help build their skills, confidence and CV. 

In our experience young people are transformed through both the full-time nature of the programme and because they can, to paraphrase Gandhi, “lose themselves in service”.

By offering a shared experience for 16-year-olds through their National Citizen Service scheme, the coalition has gone part of the way to grasping the national service nettle. It is a good start.?

But with rising numbers of those not in employment, training or education (NEET), attainment gaps that remain a big problem and a creeping apathy towards notions of citizenship and community, I would urge all the parties to be much bolder in their ambitions for young people.

If we are really to create the “culture of service” that prime minister David Cameron has talked about, what we need is a radical cultural shift.

This means providing a critical mass of meaningful opportunities to serve that start at a young age and continue throughout people’s lives, especially at key points throughout their education.?At City Year we have ambitious plans to expand to support 50,000 children every year by 2020.

There are other entrepreneurial organisations providing social action opportunities for young people, such as the Challenge Network, Student Hubs, Envision and BeatBullying.

But to scale up the opportunities and make it possible for all young people to take action, there needs to be more investment and more active championing of the transformative impact that young people can make in society.

To help us, we need political will from across the spectrum, as well as school leaders embracing the potential impact that full-time service opportunities can bring to their school improvement strategies.

  • ?Sophie Livingstone is CEO of City Year.?

Further information
City Year is planning to expand to serve in Birmingham from 2013. For details on developing a partnership, visit
CAPTION: Helping hands: The 2012/13 City Year volunteers get together to celebrate the start of their year working in London’s schools (top), while a City Year volunteer at work in his mentoring role with a London student (above).


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