Last November, Alan Milburn, former secretary of state for health, urged ministers to explore making voluntary activity a part of the secondary school national curriculum.
Speaking at the annual conference of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, his theme was the central importance of "a vibrant voluntary sector - forged from the combined efforts of millions of unpaid volunteers (as) the bedrock of a modern civil society".
There will, of course, be those who reject his proposal out of hand, arguing that neither schools nor the national curriculum are the place for a government wheeze to dragoon kids into making good the shortcomings of public services. Schools are already struggling to raise education standards. This is no time to heap fresh demands on burdened teachers.
Besides, in response to the proposal that "all teenagers would need to complete a period as a volunteer", the sceptical will be swift to point out that "compulsory volunteering" is an oxymoron too far.
These obvious criticisms are serious but not overwhelming. Community involvement is already a statutory entitlement in the secondary curriculum and part of the framework for PSHE and citizenship in primary schools. In this context, Alan Milburn is not proposing anything new; he is making explicit and specific an existing curriculum requirement that young people should develop their citizen skills and dispositions as active members of their communities. The argument for doing this has already been made at length and incorporated in the national curriculum for citizenship education.
It is time to move on. If Alan Milburn's vision is to be realised, three conditions must be met. They concern the urgent need for: l joined up government action;l a realistic deal between government and the voluntary sector; l serious attention to the contribution of citizenship education to teaching and learning across the life of the school.
First, the call for joined-up government is often aired but rarely achieved. Generating synergy between the bureaucratic silos of government is a complex and challenging task. Most departments have citizenship tucked into their portfolio, but there is no overarching strategy to connect practice with purpose. Neighbourhood renewal, local strategic partnerships, and community development initiatives, for example, are not formally required to offer schools structured opportunities for community involvement and learning. Meaningful community involvement requires imagination, careful planning and, above all, the structures and resources to make it happen. The Association for Citizenship Teaching (ACT), aware of the scale of the challenge, is currently developing a framework of agreement, the Citizenship Accord, to provide a template for effective cross-sector engagement with schools on citizenship and community issues.
Second, Alan Milburn has challenged the voluntary sector to work with government to bring about systemic social change. Sector leaders are already asking for parity of treatment and esteem in comparison with business providers. The voluntary sector - a misnomer for the "community sector", of which volunteering is a part - is subjected to constant rounds of competitive bidding in return for short-term contracts. The business sector regularly enjoys contracts for 10 years or more. Furthermore, accountability currently favours the measurable over the purposeful, which blunts motivation, quality and innovation. The process is fraught with waste and frustration.
Finally, additional pupil volunteering must have a pay-off for young people. This requires more than good will; it requires curriculum and professional development in schools as well as professionally structured projects and placements in the community.
Alan Milburn has challenged teachers and the community sector. In response they are likely to challenge the government to take seriously the mechanisms and resources that are needed to turn his vision into reality.
John Potter was formerly director of CSV Education for Citizenship