Voluntary work that'snot without profit;FE Focus

25th June 1999 at 01:00
The Government wants to persuade young people there are pay-offs for their Millennium Volunteers, reports Ngaio Crequer

"THE only problem is that the millennium is a turn-off for young people ... and the concept of volunteering is associated with people like me, boring, middle aged, middle class, wearing a cardigan, carrying a purse."

Nobody could describe Margaret Hodge as boring, and her spin doctors got rid of the cardigans and purses long ago. The minister for education and equal opportunities, was describing the difficulty of her task in marrying the millennium with volunteering. That task is to reach out to people aged 16-24.

Prime Minister Tony Blair launched Millennium Volunteers at the beginning of the year. The aim is for young people to undertake 200 hours of voluntary work over the year. Volunteers can be at school, college or university or be unemployed. Yesterday around 40 young people received MV Awards of Excellence from Education and Employment Secretary David Blunkett. They received no money but their CVs will benefit from "an MV for the CV", which the Government hopes the public will recognise as an asset.

"Kids want something for something," said Ms Hodge, "and they don't want it to be led by us boring old farts. They want it to be led by people like themselves."

Her department is setting up a youth forum to advise on Millennium Volunteers. They want to get some pop icons to join in. Companies including Pepsi Cola and Adidas are supporting the project, and employers will be urged to endorse and sponsor projects, encouraging staff involvement.

The Government has pledged pound;48 million over three years and organisations from the public or private sector can bid for contracts to run projects.

Ryburn Valley high school, in Sowerby, West Yorkshire, is the only school in the country to run a Millennium Volunteers programme. It has won nearly pound;70,000 to run projects including developing a wheelchair loan scheme, working with the Red Cross; students training as "paired reading" assistants in primary schools; workshops on bullying, and the transition from primary to secondary school; and linking up with the local Samaritans branch to offer training in counselling skills.

Only 12 per cent of the first tranche of bids have come from colleges and universities, which was disappointing for ministers.

Tamlin Horsley, 23, has been working since January with a publicity group celebrating volunteer achievements in Herefordshire. She has been organising DJs, booking bands, writing press releases, giving talks in schools and colleges and trying to get people to move away from the typical image of volunteering.

She took a BTEC diploma in art and design but was put off university by the prospect of debt. After spending around a year in Indonesia, she is now working in sales. "I took part in the MV because ultimately I want to go into marketing. It has given me confidence, especially in dealing with people. As so many people now have degrees, it has been difficult to motivate myself. I now know what skills I have within myself. It will look good on my CV and I have really enjoyed it."

Jamie Meagher, aged 23, has been working on a marine conservation project with children, in Torbay, South Devon. She and two friends have devised their own project, learning to dive and research under water, spotting sea horses and cuttlefish. With their photographs they visit schools and give beach interpretations in the classroom. They take art, and discuss poetry with young children. They have also been working on coast protection schemes with the local coast manager.

After graduating in biology Ms Meagher got a job with Wessex Water but she wanted to be out and about and left her job. Now she is working in a garage but believes her work as a volunteer will help her take a new step in her life. They want to move on and attract a grant for another environmental project, "but being paid".

One of the first FE colleges to receive a contract is Lewisham in London. Ruth Silver, its principal, said: "Millennium Volunteers redefines and extends learning into the real world, relocating students as givers and promoting skills for employment success. Most importantly, the project helps employers and students develop the idea of citizenship - and it's fun."

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