Great British National Service scheme plan gets backing of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt
Every 16-year-old in the country could be enrolled in National Service under plans which have caught the attention of the Government.
The scheme, put forward by think tank Onward, has already received enthusiastic backing from House of Commons leader Penny Mordaunt – but what is involved and how could it work?
What is the Great British National Service Scheme?
Young people are ‘unhappy, unskilled and unmoored’ says a report published this week by think tank Onward, which adds that more than one million people under the age of 18 were referred to mental health services last year.
Researchers are suggesting the Government tackle the issues with the creation of a new Great British National Service Scheme for everybody aged 16 and over to help support youngsters as they move towards adulthood.
How would it work?
As many as 600,000 teens could participate at any one time estimates Onward in its proposals, who would all be automatically enrolled by the country at the age of 16 unless they opt out.
An automatic joining system when young people meet the required age, says Onward, would ensure more people sign up from all backgrounds and avoid traditionally lower take-up rates that similar volunteering schemes have seen in the past, which rely on people coming forward.
One in five 18- to 24-year-olds is currently economically ‘inactive’ says Onward’s report. More worryingly – suicide rates amongst 15- to 19-year-olds are at their highest in over 40 years.
At the same time Onward’s research points to it being younger generations that are most likely to want to volunteer in their community with two thirds of 18 to 34 year-olds saying they want to help out in their local area. This is ahead of half of all 35- to 54-year-olds and just a third of people aged 55 or older, cites the study.
During the pandemic, three in four 16- to 24-year-olds were also either already volunteering or wanting to volunteer to support the nation’s recovery, claim researchers.
All of these reasons – says Onward – are the motivation for ‘revisiting national service’ and coming up with a scheme in the UK that would foster enthusiasm for volunteering while improving the mental health of younger people, giving them new skills and helping them to ‘forge patriotism’ – which the report also says is at lower levels among younger Brits in 2023.
Francois Valentin, senior researcher at Onward, explained: “With so many younger people feeling lonely, ill-equipped for the workplace and disconnected from their community and nation, it’s time for a bold idea to stop a generation from falling further into crisis.
“National service can be a unifying experience, teaching people the skills they need to succeed. It is not an outdated idea from history, but a modern solution more and more countries are using to help young people.
“Creating a new Great British National Service would be a popular answer to young people’s challenges. It would help them develop the skills, mental resilience and national pride many lack.”
What would volunteers do?
Proposals include everything from a two-week-long expedition for young people through to asking them to carry out a certain number of hours volunteering each year.
Onward’s ideas go further than the National Citizen Service Scheme, which was set up during David Cameron’s time as Prime Minister, which relies on interested youngsters to put themselves forward.
Onward claims low levels of interest in that scheme – possibly because of the requirement to come forward – has meant that only 13 per cent of the scheme’s age group joined in its best year despite a 45 per cent target. This can be overcome, believes the authors of the report, by automatically putting forward children when they reach the correct age.
How would it be paid for?
Organising the scheme for more than 600,000 young people could cost an estimated £1.3bn admits the report.
However it says the Government could follow the model of countries like Switzerland with the Government funding the roll-out by asking public and private organisations to support the recruitment of volunteers.
A reform of the pensions triple lock system, suggests the report, could also channel £2bn of savings that would be directed towards young people to ‘address intergenerational inequality’.
What about other countries?
Other countries, says Onward researcher Francois Valentin, are now using National Service-like schemes to support their own young people.
Alongside Switzerland, France, the USA and Germany all run versions of a civic national service scheme, points out Onward, to help develop younger generations.
The report also claims that a study conducted in Denmark – where young people can be drafted into service – found that there was improved numeracy and literacy 10 years after service with the largest improvements for men with the lowest previous skill levels.
What does the Government say?
The scheme’s proposal is attracting headlines this week after the concept appeared to be endorsed by leader of the House of Commons Penny Mordaunt.
The blueprint is a considerable step away from being Government policy however the MP said that while national service was rather an old idea – Onward’s proposal put forward a more modern version.
In The Telegraph she explained: “No one is more effective at helping others than a willing volunteer. Nothing is more rewarding than serving your community and nation.
“Many young people are struggling with their mental health, to find purpose, and feel a sense of belonging.
“Stepping forward to help others could be part of the answer. Service can help build the resilience, skills, and pride in their community and country that many need.”
The ideas are also reportedly receiving the backing of other Conservative and Labour MPs while former International Development Secretary Rory Stewart added his support within Onward’s report.
He wrote: "A clear, bold essential idea - provocative and important – and if done with conviction and energy a wonderful gift to young people and for the country."
A new opinion pol commissioned by Onward also shows that an estimated 57 per cent of British people would support National Service with the most popular model including civil and military activities.
Crucially, three times as many young people support the idea than oppose it. However, says the polling, the majority of people oppose a mandatory scheme, including nearly two-thirds of youngsters.