§ 8.11 p.m.
§ Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe
asked Her Majesty's Government whether they will take steps to increase the awareness among employers and young people of the case for taking gap years and undertaking voluntary service.
The noble Baroness said: My Lords, it gives me enormous pleasure to be able to introduce this debate. I must immediately declare an interest as chair of Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO). In my six years as chair, I have seen the real benefits of volunteering to everyone involved: to individuals, to host organisations, and to employers. Not only that, but I believe it is possible to show that there are real benefits for UK foreign policy and for international 1573 understanding in developing the spirit of volunteering, and that there are also benefits for community development and citizenship awareness here at home.
Sadly, too few young people are aware of the opportunities and advantages offered by volunteering, particularly those young people who come from disadvantaged homes; and too few employers recognise the skills that volunteering develops. When the UK's competitiveness depends on developing skills and talents to the full, that is a waste that the country can ill afford. I believe the Government share that view, and I hope to persuade the Minister that there are steps that can be taken to achieve real change.
I am grateful to noble Lords who have indicated that they will support this debate. Your Lordships will be well aware of the varied interests that those noble Lords reflect, and that promises us a fascinating debate—a debate that spans local, regional, national and international interests.
The terms of the debate are deliberately focused not only on international volunteering, which is what I know most about, but also on gap year provision. That is because I have been so impressed by the work of the Year Out Group, whose launch I attended a month or so ago.
This is a group of around 20 reputable organisations which is setting standards for gap year providers. It is supported by the Department for Education and Employment, and promotes the structured year out for school leavers before they go to university or start a job, or for those who choose to take a year out between university and looking for a job.
While I want to encourage the Government to promote volunteering for all age groups because I have seen the massive impact it can have on the lives of all involved, the majority of supporters of any voluntary activities, in this country at least, are largely from older sections of society. That in itself can have a negative impact on young people. That is why it is particularly important to encourage the young—although the National Centre for Volunteering reminded me that a pro-volunteering message is probably best coming not from middle-aged people like me but from sports stars or, even better, from the friends of the youngsters concerned. I entirely concur with that. I know that the Government have given much thought to this, and I welcome their active support, for example, for the youth millennium scheme, and of course for the overseas training programme managed by VSO.
VSO started 40 years ago promoting volunteering for school leavers. Its legacy is warmly remembered by huge numbers of people around the world. There are numerous stories of people who are now leaders in their own countries and communities describing the impact that a volunteer had on their education. It is easy to forget that these volunteers were only 18 and straight out of school.
VSO moved a long time ago to concentrate on professionally skilled and experienced volunteers; but that does not mean that there is not huge scope for young people without that degree of skill or experience 1574 to think of a year out. The demand is very buoyant indeed. The Year Out Group has estimated that the number of organisations offering year out experience for school leavers has grown by 50 per cent in the past two years, to almost 200.
For those thinking of applying to university—again I must declare an interest as chief executive of the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals—it is essential that they know that a gap year experience, so long as it is well structured, will be warmly welcomed. It is important to emphasise "well structured". At present, we are talking about only a small proportion of school leavers who become involved in this activity. UCAS estimates that the number of applicants who take a gap year is just under 7 per cent.
Nicholas St Aubyn, who as a Member in another place has been an active supporter of gap year provision, commissioned some research earlier this year which indicated that universities felt that a year out was beneficial. Indeed, many vice-chancellors believe that it could contribute to promoting greater access. They believe that it helps to develop confidence and raises aspirations.
What is particularly important is the standard of offering that is provided. VSO's extensive experience indicates that placements and volunteers have to be thoroughly researched and carefully matched. That is just as true for an 18 year-old school leaver as it is for a middle-aged, qualified and experienced professional.
Young people who do something beneficial, and who can show that there is some structure in the way they have gone about it, are highly sought after by recruitment agencies, employers and universities. But so much more could be done. Employers need to be alerted to the potential. Resourcefulness, innovation and creativity characterise such volunteers, and these are the very qualities that make business competitive.
Even more relevant, such experiences can provide potential employees with a breadth of experience and the skills to adapt to a global business environment. It can provide an understanding of other cultures and other peoples which provide insights into the very markets which will enable UK companies to maintain global excellence. I ask the Minister to do what she can to encourage employers to take up opportunities such as VSO's business partnership secondments. I urge the Minister particularly to encourage the involvement of local authorities, where there is real scope for further engagement but as yet not a lot has happened.
The majority of students who are likely to consider the possibilities and potential of these opportunities, however, are likely to come from well-informed, middle-class families. The very notion of the gap year can evoke a rather traditional middle-class school leaving applicant. Your Lordships will know that that represents a decreasing minority of students entering university. I should like to see increasing links between gap year provision and more mature, experienced higher education applicants.
1575 In commending as I do the work of gap year organisations, just as important is recognition that the majority of school leavers still do not go on to higher education, which means that we must work much harder to attract them. VSO and many other gap year organisations have sought ways to work with those who do not appear to have a sparkling academic future. Experience has shown that the potential value to these people of appropriately designed international volunteering is, if anything, even more influential than for those who are waiting to go to university. There are many powerful examples of those who have been out of work, or in casual employment, since leaving school and whose volunteering experience has given them new aspirations and the confidence and commitment to strive to meet them.
We must work to promote schemes that provide opportunities to young people of all backgrounds and must recognise their skills. Inevitably, that can happen only if the necessary resources are made available. Government departments need a co-ordinated approach to avoid people falling down what often appear to be rather large cracks. For example, the DfEE insists that recipients of grants under the millennium volunteer scheme must demonstrate a benefit to UK communities. That is fair enough. However, DfID funding is not available since the department considers that youth volunteers do not make a valuable contribution to development. Yet the truth is that well run volunteering schemes provide important education and employment benefits. Certainly, they can offer development benefits and raise development awareness. For example, surely the cross-cultural exchange and anti-racist agendas offered by youth schemes are of interest to the Home Office. Since this is an interest that affects at least three different departments, joined-up government is essential in cracking the problem of the funding of youth volunteer schemes. I make no apology for mentioning the need for resources. Young people need to live while they gain experience.
In conclusion, I urge the Minister to explore how the benefit system can support the choices of individuals who are sufficiently enterprising to volunteer. I hope that my noble friend will also consider, for example, the case put by the National Centre for Volunteering that the UK's lifelong learning strategy should include credits for volunteer time worked to be added to individual learning accounts. The year 2001 is International Year of Volunteering. I should like to see the Government celebrating it by encouraging a framework that supports gap year activity for all who want to take it up as a contribution not only to the "access" debate but as a means to help deliver the lifelong learning and active citizenship agendas.
§ 8.23 p.m.
§ Lord Lucas
My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, for giving us an opportunity to debate the gap year. I look back with enormous happiness to my gap year in which I visited Afghanistan and Iran. I appear to have had a bad effect on those countries. Today it is not easy 1576 to visit such places. That had a strong influence on my maturity and general experience of the world. From my observations, most people who undertake it have a similar experience.
The gap year following school, particularly if one is to go to an assured place at university, provides a very rare opportunity. Rarely does one have a year in which to do as one wishes without interrupting or jeopardising what follows it. The noble Baroness made a very important point in extending the idea to people who were not going on to university. That also applies to later stages in one's career, perhaps when one leaves university or other qualification courses. People in that position, and students generally, have difficulty in facing the uncertainty about whether a gap year will enhance their employment prospects. They may feel that, instead of gaining an advantage, they will fall behind in the employment race compared with their colleagues.
There is insufficient information available to people who look at this particular fence. There is little information provided by companies on the web or elsewhere about how much they welcome people with good gap experience which improves their prospects; for example, that a good gap year is worth a couple of years of relatively menial employment and enhances an individual's opportunities thereafter. Perhaps the Government could put their mind to organising an information resource of that kind. The web provides government with an enormous opportunity to make such a resource available on a fairly broad basis. They could have contributions from several hundred companies in different areas of employment pointing out the advantages of a gap year. That would provide easy access to students. The provision of such information would be fairly cheap. All the Government have to do is provide the information on some web space and tell people where it is. The Government are reasonably good at that anyway.
I was also interested in the observations of the noble Baroness about the Year Out Group. The DfEE appears to be moving towards the accreditation, or at least paying someone else to accredit, gap year courses. Someone who has a gap year has great difficulty in deciding what is worthwhile and what the experience will be like. There are a large number of cowboys out there. For example, there is a happy band of enterprises that appears to consist of merely paid holidays for the children of the rich masquerading as gap years; there is another which consists entirely of work in McDonald's so that individuals can take a holiday in one of the Spanish islands.
Information about the quality of courses and the experience of others would be valuable to students. The Government might find it difficult to become involved in putting their chop on such courses and then taking responsibility when, as sometimes happens, things go wrong and students experience serious difficulties overseas in whatever environment they find themselves. However, if the Government have taken the first step by sponsoring the Year Out Group more can be done in that direction. They might consider sponsoring a charter mark or website on 1577 which students' reactions and histories can be posted so that this year's crop can see the experience of the previous two years. If that is done independently of the providers of such courses it will remove the supposition that the Government are placing their own imprimatur on the quality of the courses.
I have seen so many schools where hardly anybody has taken a gap year. It is not confined simply to the poor who will not do it; there are whole sections of the middle classes, particularly up north, who do not believe that a gap year is part of the experience and focus on the employment ladder. The Government could make a real difference by taking the simple step of helping to make information available in a way that the private sector cannot do easily.
I shall stick to my four minutes, which seems appropriate for a gap debate.
§ 8.28 p.m.
§ Lord Dahrendorf
My Lords, we owe a debt of gratitude to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, for giving us this opportunity to discuss, however briefly, one of the most important aspects of civil and civilised society: voluntary activity. The noble Baroness listed in an impressive manner some of the benefits of voluntary activity. Such activity responds to needs which otherwise may remain unmet and gives those involved a sense of achievement. It also helps to knit together communities, which perhaps is not the least important of the benefits of voluntary activity.
I should like to deal with a more difficult question. I speak with great hesitation, because I believe that the Minister knows much more about this than I do. I read in a recent report by Community Service Volunteers and Demos that one of the expectations that an individual may have in voluntary activity is that it provides,a powerful pathway to social inclusion".The research that I have seen indicates that it is more an expression of social inclusion by those who are included than an actual pathway to social inclusion. Indeed, the excluded are unlikely to accept voluntary activity as a substitute for the more permanent and stable relationships of employment. That is one of the major problems with regard to volunteering and voluntary activity in general.
I wish to address one aspect of the Question: awareness among employers. I shall not talk about gap years but about voluntary service often of shorter periods. There are quite a few examples of good practice among employers and enterprises. I can speak about them because in no case do I have to declare an interest. They are simply examples of good practice. There is the example of community investment—of companies offering time or payment to institutions in which employees of companies are involved. Marks & Spencer is one such example.
There is the example of companies which allow their employees a certain number of hours, days or sometimes more, for voluntary activity. I believe that Jaguar has the rule that people can engage in voluntary activity for a week each year.
1578 Better still is the example of companies which match the hours that people give of their own time by allowing them to take off time from work to the same extent. Barclays at Leeds is an example.
The most interesting example relates to the professional organisation, KPMG, which has set up, first, a community brokering service which links employees who are willing and ready to undertake voluntary service with opportunities to do so; and, secondly, a time bank to enable employees to draw on a credit of time for voluntary activity thereby encouraging them to engage in such activity.
Those are excellent examples of good practice. The periods involved do not add up to entire gap years. However, such practices encourage voluntary activity, not through government alone, but by companies and employers taking responsibility for communities and society in general.
I cannot resist another comment on the notion of time banks. The concept may sound strange. However, a distinguished and interesting author, David Boyle, has written a book called Funny Money. The funny money referred to is the activity which emerges as a result of people volunteering to help others. It is an advance on the old system of barter in terms of time—"You teach my daughter the violin and I shall repair your garden fence". A wider network is involved and the relationship within which the time is given does not have to be one-to-one. In an interesting recent paper, Mr Boyle sought to devise conditions under which a London time bank could be created. He calls it A vision. But without vision we are unlikely to get far in this area. Indeed, I regret that the noble Lord, Lord Young of Dartington, is not with us today. With his advocacy and activity for social entrepreneurs, he would have a great deal to say about those who have the vision to encourage people to make a voluntary contribution to the creation of communities.
That leads me to my final comment. Yes, it is nice to receive encouragement, including encouragement from government. But let us never forget that voluntary activity is voluntary; it is not organised by government or anyone else. It can and should be encouraged, but it should always be the result of people's own initiative rather than a parallel organisation of work.
§ 8.35 p.m.
§ The Earl of Listowel
My Lords, I, too, am most grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, for initiating this debate.
The high priority the Government have given to promoting voluntary activity among young people is greatly to be welcomed. In preparing for this debate, I have read with immense pleasure about the successes of the millennium volunteer scheme.
I recently asked a senior United States government official what was the most obvious difference between the United States and this country. He replied that in Britain people do not starve. We must not lose touch with those on the margins of society. We must remain committed to providing public services which are 1579 available to all, allowing those whom we accept as refugees, those with physical or mental impairments or those who have been abused or neglected to enter into the mainstream if they will.
Community service for young people is an essential means of maintaining that contact. For example, the millennium volunteer project involves, perhaps exceptionally, large numbers of unemployed young people. So on some schemes young people in employment, at college or university, are acquainting themselves with young people who may never have worked and have minimal educational qualifications. The voluntary work connects volunteers with young people from the ethnic minorities, primary school pupils who risk failing at school and children with AIDS.
Over the past 12 months, one of my co-volunteers is an Afro-Caribbean in his 30s who grew up on the Stonebridge Housing Estate in North London. Knowing him and volunteering with young black men in the past not only helps me to understand life from another point of view but also enables me to see what I have in common with people from an ethnic group not my own. While I recognise that many experiences separate us, I can feel that we share some of the same faults and strengths. Indeed, my fellow feeling prompts me to ask why we have no Afro-Caribbean man regularly contributing to deliberations in your Lordships' House. The voluntary work of young people helps to knit together the different communities within society. It not only increases the respect of one group for another, it also promotes compassion. It encourages future electors to support policies that protect and assist vulnerable minorities, and future taxpayers to fund public services more likely to give direct benefit to others rather than themselves.
I conclude by drawing attention to the National Centre for Volunteering, which is working currently with 170 student groups representing 25,000 student volunteers. The centre provides salaried permanent volunteer co-ordinators at some British universities. These help to make volunteering safe, a learning experience and continuous from one student cohort to another.
In the report on early lessons from millennium volunteer demonstration projects, the importance of such support is highlighted twice. It states that,where young people have had a successful millennium volunteer experience, many highlight the support given to them by the millennium volunteer project staff as critical".Salaried permanent volunteer co-ordinators are critical. I hope that the Government will do all in their power to support the National Centre for Volunteering in its work.
§ 8.40 p.m.
§ Baroness Andrews
My Lords, I, too, am pleased to contribute to the debate and to thank my noble friend Lady Warwick for the opportunity to do so.
One of the key signatures of the Government is that they have made volunteering such a high priority and have put such value on it. The gap year is a unique and, 1580 interestingly, growing element of that. Like my noble friend, I particularly welcome the formation of the Year Out Group. It is a remarkable start in creating new standards and opening new opportunities.
The debate raises wider issues—too wide to be dealt with in five minutes—about the way in which people will learn, work and live in a transnational society. In my personal and professional experience, young people thrive on volunteering experiences. Once they have a taste they want to do more. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, said, the problem is usually finding the right opportunity and information.
It is clear that universities already know the value of volunteering. Parents, students, career services and schools need to know what the university admissions service already knows—that gap-year students are successful. They start fresh, they stay motivated and they succeed. Even though, as research suggests, they have difficulty in adjusting to academic work after being away, their social adjustment is rapid and successful.
In my experience, when a 18 year-old spends a year teaching in a primary class of 60 children in Honduras, knowing that few of them will be in school at 14 and that none of them has any hope of higher education, a high value is put on his or her higher education.
Secondly, parents and students need to know that the skills and attitudes acquired through volunteering at home and abroad literally pay very well. With so many graduates leaving higher education, who is going to stand out? Is it to be someone who has done all his growing up within tertiary education or someone who has been tested by working with refugees at a resettlement centre?
Many employers already know the difference. According to a CSV survey, 80 per cent of the top 500 UK employers affirmed that volunteers demonstrated above average self- confidence, team work and, above all, communication skills. Those are the key skills that the future labour market will need. In London alone two-thirds of employers are currently looking for graduates with generic skills, irrespective of degrees, who can lead, manage and solve problems. And as global players they are looking for graduates with all the extras, particularly the ability to relate to different cultures and speak different languages.
Key skills are sometimes called "soft skills". I cannot understand why because they are so hard, if not impossible, for many young people to acquire. As a way of making the value of volunteering at home and abroad explicit, perhaps I may suggest that the Government consider commissioning a skills audit from the voluntary organisations and the Year Out Group which will aim to chart the skills acquired across the different experiences within the volunteering opportunity and to put new visibility and value on the benefits. With such evidence, employers and parents alike will be left in no doubt of the real value of the time spent. It might even be the start of a new record of achievement for higher education students, which is long overdue.
1581 In respect of young people, I would argue that a structured gap year has the power to change lives. That opportunity should be within the grasp of a wider group of young people. At the moment it remains a privileged choice and the gap organisations are frank in saying that they have difficulty in recruiting in the inner cities. Where there is no personal connection, no family experience and no folk memory of what it means to take such an opportunity, it is difficult to convince people that it is for them; it is something which happens to other people.
Those who have least opportunity to find out and to make a choice have something extra to give not only because of their empathy but because of the skills they bring and the way in which they can relate to people in worse or similar situations. They may also be the very students whose school lives have been narrowly focused and who have not been able to travel abroad or to experience the out-of-school enrichment in the way that many students can these days.
The first step is to convince parents and students of two things: first, that a period of volunteering is a wise investment of time and money; and, secondly, especially if they are going abroad, that it is safe and well supported. I speak with experience of the Project Trust and can say that many of the organisations have a good record of safety and back-up in the countries to which they send volunteers. A skills audit will help the first aspect and some common standards of support and provision will help the second.
I hope that the Government will encourage the Year Out Group to take the student guidelines further and to create that framework of quality which would be so helpful. But I also believe that there is great scope for companies and trusts to be more proactive in helping young people to find the funds which they are sometimes required to provide. They can help in providing organisations to take returned volunteers into the schools to speak from personal experience of what it has meant to them to be able to give to and learn from other cultures and communities.
Finally, I am optimistic that the millennium volunteer scheme will lead the way in creating new scope for active citizenship and new ways of accrediting volunteers with life-wide as well as lifelong skills. The third report of the Skills Task Force recently stated:Too many of our workforce, raised in the routine 'jobs for life' culture of the past … lack basic skills, aspirations and self-belief to broaden their horizons through the power of learning … The development of skills and knowledge has never been and should not become the preserve of traditional education institutions or providers".The development of volunteering in all its forms serves as an antidote to that. But what counts ultimately is not the skills but the aspirations and attitudes inspired with self-belief and the capacity to manage change. With the new citizenship curriculum in place, perhaps we may see a new vocabulary emerge, not of opting out but of opting in to practical citizenship, even communitarianism, both locally and globally.
§ 8.46 p.m.
§ Lord Phillips of Sudbury
My Lords, I join others in thanking the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, for introducing this important debate and hope that she will not mind if I concentrate on its volunteering aspect. I do not disagree with a single word that has been spoken thus far but I want to concentrate on certain issues of concern and thus of challenge.
Volunteering is the oxygen of any good society. It is the first building block of a good community. Without community, the prospect of informal volunteering is vastly reduced. That is the truth for many parts of this country because communities have declined so greatly, bringing a decline in informal volunteering.
Informal volunteering is so easily overlooked but it is crucial. The most vulnerable parts of our communities find their place, their role and their contribution within that realm. In the Citizenship Foundation, of which I am proud to be chair, we often say that the most single telling hallmark of the quality of any culture or society is the extent to which every single member can make a contribution to it. One of the dangers of discussions about volunteering and charity is that people can easily slide into the giving and receiving model. The most crucial aim must be that we are all givers and receivers because only then can we have a society in which one feels comfortable.
One must face the fact that, according to the records of the National Centre for Volunteering, volunteering and giving by the under-30s are in serious decline. That is a challenge. One must also face the reality that the charity and voluntary sector are in some senses professionalising. There is a real danger that inadvertently they will diminish volunteering by the group that I am most concerned about and will overlook the crucial contribution made by the less skilled and apparently less competent cohorts in our society.
Very often it is the tea and sympathy which is the most important element in a voluntary organisation. It is the time that people with no professional skills can give to those who need their care and attention that is the irreplaceable core of many, if not most, charities.
Therefore, I end my few remarks by making those warnings and hoping that whatever is done—and I hope that a great deal is done—the sector itself will take the lead. As my noble friend Lord Dahrendorf said, this is not a government job. Government is there to help the hoop along, but basically this is something that we do for ourselves. In so doing, we must make every conceivable effort to be comprehensive in drawing in the help and contribution of everyone.
Lastly, in praise of the Government, I believe that the citizenship curriculum, which becomes a compulsory component of secondary education from autumn 2002, gives an opportunity to build in the hearts and minds of young people the wish and desire to be contributors, as well as having the ability, the confidence and the skills to be volunteers.
§ 8.51 p.m.
§ The Earl of Sandwich
My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, on finally achieving this debate. I am delighted to support her as one who has worked for years in international development. I apologise to the House that, unavoidably, I shall have to leave before the wind-up speeches.
I declare an interest as a trustee of Christian Aid, which over 40 years ago helped to launch Voluntary Service Overseas. We must remember the Churches' contribution to this whole subject. I, too, had the advantage of working overseas before going to university, and I know many other people whose lives have been shaped by the early experience of living in another community.
My first debate in the House was on the subject of world development and world awareness. I am very pleased to see the emphasis that this Government place on citizenship, as has just been mentioned, and the spreading of understanding of other societies. We must not let current fears of illegal immigration interfere with the genuine wish of the majority to engage with other cultures. The encouragement by government of young volunteers and educational exchanges are essential aspects of this sharing process.
The word "volunteering" has been stretched beyond recognition, and charity employers are still wrestling with the need to maintain standards and a sensible pay structure while generally welcoming the volunteer ethic. That is a subject for another debate. However, there is no real disagreement about the value of the gap year or the year out. Both the NGOs and this Government have fostered a range of initiatives in the UK and overseas through the DfEE, the British Council, the European Union and the volunteer sending agencies, as I am sure we shall hear from the Minister.
As we have heard, the Year Out Group brings together 20 organisations which offer work and teaching opportunities as well as adventure programmes overseas. I mention to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that another recent initiative is the Youth for Britain Worldwide Volunteering website, which searches up to 250,000 volunteer places available worldwide. For the UK, the "yini" website of the Royal Academy of Engineering gives information about its excellent Year in Industry initiative.
In the past, concerns about the value of the year out have been expressed in university departments, especially maths departments and, I believe still currently, music. They see it as something of an interruption. However, I believe that those fears have been allayed. As the noble Baroness said, vice-chancellors surveyed recently have overwhelmingly supported it. The structured year out is becoming more and more popular with universities and companies, which together see the advantage of adding value to education.
Aid agencies generally take the view that young volunteers benefit from gap years more than do their host countries. Many years ago, VSO insisted that 1584 skills were necessary but it has now returned to recruiting young volunteers again. I believe that there is still some debate about that.
Of course, poverty always demands more skills, but in the long term our young people will receive a broader education which will later benefit their own work and the communities that they serve. Mr Peter Brooke's account, in the debate in another place last month, of his own extended family involvement was in itself a remarkable testimony to the success of young volunteers. A phrase used by the agencies is "enriching lives"—I believe that it was used also by the noble Baroness, Lady Andrews—which applies to the volunteer and his or her UK community as much as to the host country. The influence of returning volunteers has been essential in spreading understanding about poverty and development in many fields of life, not only in the aid agencies but in the media, community work and education.
The year out still tends to benefit better-off children. One glance at the list of volunteers from Gap Activity Projects shows that a large majority still come from London and the South East. However, as has been said, that is slowly changing and can be changed, even in the inner cities. On the other hand, it can be expensive. That is something that the agencies must watch. I have a nephew—a school leaver—who is about to go to China with the Dorset Expeditionary Society, and I know how hard many young people must work to obtain sponsorship.
I hope that the Minister will confirm that encouraging young people of all backgrounds to take up overseas placements will be a priority because of the enduring benefits that they undoubtedly bring. There is much scope for involving young people from deprived areas in exchanges overseas, and VSO, too, has some experience of that in Hull and North Tyneside. I take the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Phillips, about giving and receiving. It must a balanced and equal partnership.
Therefore, supporting volunteers is not only a form of aid: it is now accepted that the UK will gain something from it. Industry is taking the lead, showing much more interest in gap year students and the concept of sponsored volunteering because the skills and experience acquired then prove so useful later on. One should perhaps single out the engineering industry, which is particularly active, with universities such as Cambridge and Surrey positively recommending a year out as a prerequisite of training. Rolls-Royce, a company with offices in, I believe, over 35 countries, has been working closely with the organisation, Gap, and declares,a real interest in individuals who have been exposed to other cultures at an early stage".Sadly, there are always a few hard luck stories which cannot and should not be pinned on the lack of facilities in host countries, as often they are. I know personally of cases where well established charities fail to back up young people in very difficult circumstances, where management or training has failed and the volunteer has been critically ill in an isolated place. I had some experience of that myself as 1585 an 18 year-old in an Australian mission on the River Indus. The gap and year out agencies must give priority to safety and, if necessary, raise their quality of training and administration.
However, professionalism in management must not alter the voluntary basis of volunteering, which motivates young people to take risks and to gain self esteem in a world which often seems to them divisive and exclusive. Finally, I quote Roger Potter, an experienced educationalist and chairman of the Year Out Group:In an age that puts more and more emphasis on measured academic qualifications it is more important than ever that we promote less finite challenges that draw from young people their independence, their resourcefulness, their courage and their willingness to explore beyond the boundaries of their immediate experience".
§ 8.59 p.m.
§ Lord Redesdale
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, for initiating this debate. I feel slightly hard done by, as I believe that I should be listed as a maiden speaker because this is my first speech in any debate as a reinvigorated life Peer, although many of my noble friends told me that that would be ridiculous.
I should like to promote the work of the Year Out Group, which was mentioned by the noble Baroness. It has produced a valuable comprehensive leaflet that puts together the basic questions that do not occur to many people who think about a year out, without promoting any individual organisation. Perhaps the Department for Education and Employment should provide funding for it to be sent out with UCAS application forms. I do not say that in jest. Universities would benefit from more mature students who have some experience of life before they undertake their university education. Students coming straight from school to any form of higher education can find it difficult to acclimatise, particularly if they are far from home.
Gap years are traditionally taken between school and university. However, as many noble Lords have said, although that is a good time to take a gap year, it should not be thought of as the only time to do so. I know students who have taken a gap year between years of their course. That can be valuable and has even been promoted by course tutors for those who are having difficulties and need time to reflect on where their life is going. Perhaps the best time for a gap year is before someone takes on their first job, or even between jobs. I know of a number of people who have entered the City and now want to take a new direction.
The gap year does not have to be spent abroad. I have found that people who have taken gap years have grown in confidence and, most importantly, in their belief in themselves and their sense of independence. When we ask students what their aim in life is, too many of them have no idea. Gap years can combat one of the great threats facing a lot of students; the introspective nature of education. They put their head down and get on with their studies because they are 1586 worried about student debt and the need for a good degree to be able to find employment. Having interviewed people and been interviewed, I have found that employers are often more interested in the other aspects of a CV rather than only the conventional qualifications.
Gap years do not have to be undertaken immediately before or after university, but one problem with leaving it too long is that, as we grow older, we inevitably gain ties and responsibilities, such as mortgages, marriage and family.
Some excellent organisations undertake gap year activities. I shall focus on two. I declare an interest in Raleigh International on two counts. First, I went with Operation Raleigh to Zimbabwe in 1989. Secondly, I was recently asked to be an honorary vice-president. Raleigh International offers safe, structured and constructive work. Its partners in overseas countries receive well-structured projects that can be taken forward. The venturers who go on such expeditions often find it a life-changing experience. That phrase is often used glibly, but I know from having worked as a staff member that some of the venturers who accompanied me on some of the toughest hikes through the Mavuradonha wilderness area in northern Zimbabwe changed their view of where their life was going during that time. Two of them changed their jobs afterwards and one decided to go back to university. The project gave them time to make those decisions, away from the pressures that are so often associated with family and work.
We should not focus only on those who are going to university and those who can afford the large price tag involved in going overseas. Raleigh is doing a lot to offer its activities to a wider range of people, particularly those in deprived areas. It is working with those who have had problems with drugs or have been involved in crime. Such people now make up a significant proportion of those who undertake Raleigh expeditions, which can show them a new aspect of life. One of the members of my expedition had been involved in car crime. When I asked him why he used to do it, he said that he was bored and had no view of what to do with his life. He has gone on to achieve a lot with his life.
The other area that I should like to focus on is student community action groups at universities and other higher education establishments. They are important, because they also expand students' awareness of their own communities. In our divided society, it is very important to get students to look at estates where people's horizons are limited to where they live. It is also important to make people aware that some groups are cut off from the rest of our society, such as the carers of relatives with learning or physical disabilities.
My noble friend Lord Dahrendorf put forward the case that volunteering cannot be prescribed. I remember collecting money for a volunteer group and I was told by somebody, "You shouldn't be doing this. This is a job for the Government". However, obviously, volunteers have a place.
1587 In the very worthy cause of citizenship, the Government should look at giving assistance in relation to two aspects of volunteering: first, in funding the everyday administrative costs of volunteering groups; and, secondly, in helping to make people aware of the very existence of such groups.
Gap years are extremely valuable in providing leaders of volunteer groups which are in short supply. Few of the people I have known who have taken part in volunteering during their gap years have failed to go on to volunteer in the future.
§ 9.15 p.m.
My Lords, I, too, thank the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, for initiating this debate. It has been interesting. Also, I thank my honourable friend Nick St Aubyn, who was mentioned by the noble Baroness, for the work that he has done in initiating the Year Out Group. That group has taken on the extremely important project of raising awareness.
I was under something of a misapprehension when I first saw the wording of the Question and its reference to employers. I want to return to that point because I saw it in rather a two-dimensional light.
Also, I declare an interest as a patron of an organisation called Cathedral Camps. That is a voluntary organisation. Young people spend weeks during the summer months doing conservation work. Sometimes that is very basic work in cathedrals; for example, clearing out bat droppings from lofty reaches of the cathedrals. More precious and skilful work is also done conserving and preserving some of the finer artefacts of our cathedrals.
I believe that taking a gap year is, and should be—a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf—a matter for the individual. People usually take a gap year between leaving school and entering higher education or at the end of higher education courses and before entering the world of work. However, the noble Baroness extended that notion, and rightly so, into young, and sometimes not-so-young, people taking gaps in the course of their working lives.
I was interested in the proposal to increase employers' awareness of the case for taking a gap year. I agree with the noble Baroness about the benefits for young people who take a year out. The noble Baroness said that as long as it is well-structured, then it will be important to them. I am just a touch unnerved by that well-structured approach and the notion that it should be very organised.
Again, like the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, I hope that we shall never lose spontaneity. We do not want to lose the efforts of large numbers of young people who think about what they want to do; raise the money; and then go and do their own thing, whatever that may be. It is right that they should receive information about safety and posing to themselves the right questions. Those of us who are mothers whose children have taken gap years have lived on the edge of our seats, wondering whether they have thought it 1588 through properly or whether they are being too adventurous. But that whole essence of adventure is a very important part of a gap year.
An extremely interesting survey of vice-chancellors was carried out by the Year Out Group. Almost 52 per cent of those surveyed agreed strongly with the statement that:A structured year out benefits the personal development of the typical undergraduate".But if one takes into account agreement or neutrality, then a very large number of people agreed that it was beneficial. It is interesting that only 31 per cent of those surveyed agreed that:A structured year out is a critical factor in the development of an undergraduate",and 68 per cent either had no view or disagreed. Some 71 per cent agreed that:A structured year out is a benefit to a wide range of students".Interestingly, 47 per cent agreed that:A structured year out is of particular benefit to less advantaged students",although a fairly large number of those surveyed either did not agree or were neutral on the issue.
The majority of people—64 per cent—did not agree that the Government should fund a structured year and only 20 per cent agreed that the Government should fund it. There is a real issue in that regard as to whether the Government should find ways, perhaps through grant allocation, of helping some people to achieve a gap either before or after study. However, I do not think that any government could afford to provide the wherewithal for a gap year for everybody.
Finally, to the question,Is a structured year out better than an unstructured one?",80 per cent felt that it was.
One of the challenges and questions which came to mind during the debate concerned the reference to business. I believe that there is more that business can do. However, I am concerned about the cost to business. Large businesses are much better equipped to help young people in this way. Medium-sized, and particularly smaller-sized businesses, which I believe comprise over 90 per cent of businesses, would find it difficult to undertake an obligation to provide for gap years for young people.
The establishment of the Year Out Group coincided with the introduction of tuition fees for students. Initially, those who had arranged a year out at that time were to be penalised for deferring entry into university. A group of year out providers came together, made representations to government and successfully persuaded Ministers to resolve the issue. The Year Out Group grew and set about discussing other issues. I believe that that is where its valuable work lies; namely, in ensuring that information about gap years is made available to all students covering safety, welfare and, importantly, the quality of provision offered to young people. The group's aim is to set standards for providers and to improve information given to students.
1589 As regards the experience and skills gained by young people, employers have a part to play. As a Minister once responsible for volunteering, I remember the impressive work by Julia Cleverdon and the organisation entitled Business in the Community. Huge efforts were made, not only to interest employers in the volunteering dimension of young people's lives, but to accept that that experience was relevant to the company. I refer not only to the gap year. When young people are being interviewed for a job, what they have done of their own volition tells the employer a little more and adds another dimension to the character of the young person sitting before them. I believe that a great deal of work has been done to that extent.
The noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, spoke about the importance to employers of volunteering. The word is now fairly widespread. Employers understand that if they have an employee who thinks of others and believes that giving is better than taking, they are more than half way towards having an employee who will be a positive contributor not only to the company but to the community in which they live.
There is another spin-off. Not only are there benefits to young people and their relationship with the community in which they live; the reputation of the company is enhanced. It is no bad thing that there should be benefits all round. Anybody who has been in the business of volunteering knows that the benefits are mutual.
When Minister responsible for volunteering, I was particularly proud that my right honourable friend John Major initiated the "Make a Difference" campaign. He believed passionately that we can all make a difference, whether by giving small amounts of time, money or both. If we look around, there is something we can do to make a contribution.
The noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, who had to leave before the end of the debate because of the change in timing, talked about informal volunteering. I can remember being nervous about not becoming too organised about volunteering. It is right that governments should give encouragement. We should all do what we can to raise awareness. However, informal volunteering is essential. We live in a country which has a proud record of volunteering. I think that we sometimes overlook the amount of volunteering which takes place. In the Victorian era and earlier this century there was a great deal more neighbourly volunteering. It was automatic and informal. If somebody needed help, there was somebody to give it. Some of the closeness of families and communities has been lost. We should be mindful of that when we speak of volunteering.
The scope for better and more accurate information is considerable. I believe that the work of the Year Out Group will make a difference in that respect. I agree with much of what has been said, especially the benefits to be gained by the student. However, as I said earlier, I hope that spontaneity will not be lost for those young people who make their own arrangements and benefit very much from taking a gap year either before or after their education.
§ 9.18 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Department for Education and Employment (Baroness Blackstone)
My Lords, I, too, thank my noble friend Lady Warwick for giving us the opportunity to have this debate. Taking a year out between school and university has always been an attractive option. It is right that when young people do so they are making informed choices and that the experience is of genuine benefit for them. The Government want to bring about a step change in the numbers of people of all ages who become involved in voluntary activity. For many young people the opportunity to become involved in the community, either here or overseas, can be a truly formative experience.
UCAS estimates that in 1999 over 20,000 people deferred entry to university. As my noble friend Lady Warwick said, that is around 7 per cent. It is slightly higher in young people who come from professional and managerial groups. I hope that the numbers will increase, especially for those groups that have been rather under-represented in the past. The variety of things that they choose to do is enormous.
People tend to think of gap years as time spent abroad. That is true for some young people but certainly not all. I agree with the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, that gap years can be taken after graduation as well as before going into higher education. However, we have to remember that a year out will not be right for everyone. Some young people will not want to follow that route and we should respect their choices.
I strongly endorse what the noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said; that voluntary activity is "voluntary". I agree also with the noble Lord, Lord Phillips of Sudbury, that it would be a pity if voluntary charity work were to become "professionalised". The Government's prime responsibility is to ensure that young people make informed choices about where to take their year out and how they spend it. We also need to try to make sure that it is well spent and undertaken in a safe environment.
Who benefits from young people taking a year out? Clearly, young people themselves. They learn about people and environments with which they might never otherwise come into contact, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said. They gain experiences that will stay with them for the rest of their lives, that will change their perspectives and raise their aspirations. That is one of the reasons why opportunities for community involvement need to be available to a broad range of young people. They should not just be available to those who have already had the best chances.
As a number of speakers said, employers also benefit. They are able to draw on a pool of young people who have learnt about working with other people and about problem solving and who have gained in self-confidence. Those are the attributes that we do not always learn at school but that employers tell us they value highly. Unfortunately, not all employers recognise those benefits, as the noble Lord, 1591 Lord Lucas, and others made clear. More research on that has been commissioned and we shall be developing a strategy to try to raise awareness among employers, particularly in relation to Millennium Volunteers—something requested by my noble friend and others.
The noble Lord, Lord Dahrendorf, particularly referred to giving people time to volunteer. In his speech to the Active Community Convention in March this year, the Prime Minister challenged employers to give their employees time off. He suggested that they should have one day off every 18 months to help them undertake volunteering. The Home Office is also funding Business in the Community to set up employee volunteering schemes in cities throughout the country.
There are also benefits to educational institutions where increasingly young people are being asked what they have done in addition to gaining their academic qualifications. I am encouraged by the work that UCAS has done in that regard. When applying to university young people will have to complete a personal statement. If a young person can say that they plan to take a year out and that it will be structured and relevant to the course they want to take, universities will see that as a way of differentiating between candidates, as the noble Earl, Lord Sandwich, said.
The personal growth that young people will have experienced when they start their studies will give them a head start among their peers. It was certainly my experience as a university teacher that such young people had a genuine head start.
I say to the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, that many universities already include a section in their prospectuses or on their website acknowledging the value of a gap year. Some already include specific involvement in community or voluntary activities as being desirable qualities of prospective students. I shall certainly encourage UCAS to include this in the template which institutions use as a guide to completing their profiles.
As many speakers have said, there are benefits to the wider community. Young people can be, and often are, valuable citizens within their communities. If they learn what it means now to be a citizen, that is likely to stay with them for the rest of their lives. If they understand the importance of putting something back into the community and develop a sense of being connected with it, they are likely to stay connected and remain active citizens throughout their lives.
That is why the Government have introduced a framework for citizenship education in schools. I am grateful for the support that various speakers have expressed for that. Young people will need opportunities for putting what they have learned into practice, whether or not they go onto higher education.
There are a number of opportunities that are already supported—either directly by the Government or through European funding. One is the Overseas Training Programme. It aims to provide young people, 1592 many of whom may be interested in longer term involvement in development work, with a worthwhile experience in less developed countries. The Overseas Training Programme is largely funded by the Overseas Development Agency and managed by Voluntary Service Overseas. Students are supervised by their academic institution in this country and host partner organisations overseas.
The European Voluntary Service enables young people from EU member states to spend up to a year doing voluntary work. The Youth for Europe Programme arranges international exchanges, seminars, project training and other activities. Projects are based around a theme through which young people are able to discover and explore similarities and differences in their cultures and, in doing so, build up their confidence.
Young people are also being encouraged to volunteer their time in this country. The Government have invested £48 million in Millennium Volunteers to engage young people aged 16 to 24 in voluntary activity. Some 150 projects have already been set up across the country. I am grateful for the support that has been given in the debate for that project. Some 4,000 young people have already joined and over 400 have gained their Millennium Volunteer awards—awards which recognise the personal development of the young person and the benefits they have brought to local communities. To earn those awards, young people have committed 200 hours of their time to a huge range of activity. Young people have been involved in peer education around bullying and drugs awareness; community radio; sports coaching; and improving the environment in both cities and rural areas. These are commendable achievements for young people with busy lives. Many of these young people have not been involved in voluntary activity before.
It is important that the gap year is well organised and provides support for the young person. Like other speakers I should like to praise the work of the Year Out Group. The organisations involved in the Year Out Group are working towards setting clear quality standards and criteria for membership. We very much welcome the commitment they have shown to this and support the group's aims to ensure that young people are able to undertake gap year activities in the confidence that they will be safe and secure. I say to the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, that I shall look into ways to help distribute the group's leaflets to young people.
I also agree that we should explore ways of involving more undergraduates in voluntary work. A great deal is already being done. We have set up a national mentoring project which is aimed at raising the achievements of 12 to 18 year-olds in secondary schools in education action zones. At present that involves six universities and it is going to be extended from September to a further nine. One of our Millennium Volunteers projects is allowing students to use their voluntary activity as a credit towards their degree course. Again, we wish to see whether that 1593 approach is successful before extending it. There may also be scope to involve students as mentors in the Connexions service.
The noble Earl, Lord Listowel, and the noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, mentioned the National Centre for Volunteering. The Government are already supporting it. A number of student community action groups are now running Millennium Volunteers projects. We are going to have further discussions how to take that further.
My noble friend Lady Warwick asked about better co-ordination between government departments. It is true that Millennium Volunteers are available only in the United Kingdom, while DfID programmes tend to be targeted overseas. I accept that there is always scope for the better co-ordination of activities. I shall try to pass on to the Ministers involved in this work the need to ensure that they do not neglect the international 1594 dimension. My noble friend also asked me about the benefit system. As that is quite complex, perhaps I may write to her about it.
In conclusion, I believe that our role is to enable young people to make informed choices about what is best and most appropriate for them. I agree with what the noble Baroness, Lady Blatch, said. I do not believe that it would be right for the Government directly to finance gap years. There are many different ways in which young people can do that. In a sense, part of the challenge for them is to organise that.
This debate has provided us with an excellent opportunity to demonstrate not only the ways in which the Government are supporting these measures but also the steps that other organisations are taking. I thank all the speakers in this debate for what has been a stimulating and very informed exchange of views.
§ House adjourned at twenty-seven minutes before ten o'clock.