Here’s my speech to a meeting organised by Demos and the Private Equity Foundation at the Lib Dem Bournemouth conference:
Well – we are in the process of producing a youth policy paper for the Liberal Democrat Spring Conference next year.
Youth policy is a well-travelled area: there isn’t exactly a shortage of groups coming up with ideas, many of which are awfully similar to each other.
It’s a real challenge for a party to come up with a policy that is more than warmed-over “me too” comments, echoing what everyone else in the area of youth policy says. Everyone nods in agreement – and nothing changes.
And our thinking is that there is a role for a national civic service scheme – and this debate today is very timely. So for this policy paper we’re looking at taking a bundle of existing areas and bringing them together with a new policy idea – that of the “universal gap year” – a gap year for everyone, not just some lucky university-bound people.
W see it as a possible extra step to beating three challenges.
First, the challenge of raising some young people’s aspirations and widening their horizons – not just their views of the world around them but the sorts of people they mix with.
We are living in a more and more divided society. If you are born poor – you will almost certainly die poor – and in some parts of London young people never even get out of their post code.
Sometimes the difference in horizons can be frightening. For many kids, Starbucks is just another place on the high street – somewhere they think nothing of popping in to – if it isn’t too un-cool for them, that is.
But only recently I met someone who was mentoring a young kid, who for a year was too frightened to go out of his home because of threats from the gang he used to be in. When – finally, after three murders – the gang was broken up, his mentor offered him a trip anywhere in London – and the kid picked as his treat a visit to the local Starbucks. That was the horizon to which his imagination and desire and aspiration extended.
The second challenge is that of giving people a sense of self-worth – and one that isn’t measured in knives or tags or gangs. For those lucky enough to go on a gap year – the volunteering opportunities so often help build exactly that – self worth. But tragically – those opportunities are frequently unavailable to those most in need of them.
The third challenge is that of providing young people with the right sense of self-sufficiency – and an understanding of what is, and isn’t, acceptable behaviour.
That is the lesson we should learn from the armed forces – not the clichés about national service, but the way in which they force people
to learn how to cope with situations, to keep their cool and their judgement, to sort themselves out – and to learn the practical skills to get by day by day.
Indeed two of my favourite boyfriends from the past served in the forces and so learnt the cooking, the sewing, the ironing and the washing skills – they have left their mothers and it’s bliss.
Well, nearly bliss – they had other problems too, given I’m not married to either of them!
And so the idea of a universal gap year – most likely not a year, but of varying length – to mix everyone up, take them out of the comfort zone with their peers, learn life’s skills and learn about themselves.
It raises a myriad of questions about scope and resources – but that’s the way the thinking is going. A polished version will be produced for Spring – so now is the time to speak up with your views and suggestions.