Compulsory national civic service: the French experiment

Active citizenship has been a prominent theme of the Macron presidency. I posted recently about the way in which the French government is using adult learning accounts to promote civic participation. And it is now piloting universal national civic service for young people.

Macron launched the idea of a service national universel during his election campaign in March 2017.  His aim, he said, was to ‘recreate a meeting-point for the whole nation’, to be undertaken by all young people in the same age group regardless of faith, class, ethnicity or gender. It replaces military service, abandoned twenty years ago by the Chirac government, and the French military has no desire to see it return.

Currently, the newly-established service national universel (SNU) is being piloted by 2,000 16 year old volunteers in 13 departments. After a two-week induction phase they spend 12 days working in settings such as retirement homes, voluntary association, or voluntary fire brigades. Participants wear a navy blue uniform, with a tricolour roundel, and must start each morning by singing the Marseillaise while the French flag is raised.

While participation in the pilot phase is voluntary, the scheme is intended to become universal and compulsory from 2022-23. According to a recent survey, 67% of French 18-24 year olds support the idea, while the majority of the adult population sees it as a valid way of achieving its goals of strengthening civic culture, increasing national cohesion, promoting social mixing, and encouraging the young to value the national patrimoine culturel.

The French scheme forms an interesting contrast wth Britain’s National Citizen Service. Part of David Cameron’s Big Society initiative, and launched in 2011, participation in the NCS has always been voluntary. Like the SNU, it is massively expensive,  reportedly accounting for 95% of the government’s youth service budget, and NCS recruitment continually falls below target. I’ve heard no reports of flag-raising or anthem-singing, and there is no standard uniform.

Evaluations of the NCS are at best mixed. However, one study of participants found that the exerience led to an increase in affective inter-ethnic ties, with growth in inter-ethnic friendships being particularly strong among participants from the least multi-ethnic neighbourhoods. I suspect that this will also prove one of the main positive outcomes of the SNU in France. But couldn’t the same goal be achieved just as effectively in both countries by investing in high quality youth services?

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Responding to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education – just do it!

If you are a UK adult educator, you are probably a bit taken aback by the sheer number of current inquiries into lifelong learning. The Liberal Democrats and Labour Party both have their own inquiries, another is being led by the college sector, and the House of Commons Select Committee on Education has just announced its own study of adult skills and lifelong learning. And these come on the heels of a variety of high level reports in the past couple of years.

No wonder that some of us are inquiry-weary.  When I tweeted a link to the Select Committee Inquiry, one person responded: “I cannot see what else there is to learn. It’s essential end of! Back it fund it do it stop talking & I dare to add spend more money on finding out what we know”. Another commented: “Not again! I’ve been seeing these reports all of my long life – and learnt nothing”. So I hesitate, if only briefly, before urging you to respond to the Centenary Commission on Adult Education.

Centenary-Commission-on-Adult-Education

Members of the Centenary Commission (from Cooperative News)

The Centenary Commission’s starting point is the 1919 report of the Ministry of Reconstruction’s committee on adult education. The report was a landmark in adult education history, and is often credited with persuading the Government to expand the role of local authority adult education, and inspiring the formation of the British Institute of Adult Education (now the Learning and Work Institute).

While the 1919 report is certainly open to criticism, not least for the unmanageably large number of its recommendations (and its neglect of Scotland), it offered an inspiring vision of the broad and constructive contribution of adult education to a vibrant functioning democracy. And that is something we need to explore all over again in our new times.

So if you are interested in adult learning and education, let me urge you to overcome your inquiry fatigue. It is really easy to do, and the more of us who take the time to do so, the more likely it is that the Commission will have some impact. Of course, if you don’t respond, then I think you lose any right to pop up later complaining that you don’t like their report.

Not wishing to influence your own thinking, here’s what I said in reply to the Commission’s question about examples of good practice:

  1. The French approach to individual learning accounts (the compte personnel de formation) is one of a number of learning account schemes that seem to me well worth looking at. While it has not yet reached huge numbers, it nevertheless provides a model of incentivising learning by funding learners rather than simply increasing funding to institutions.

  2. The concerted and intensive awareness-raising of Adult Learners Week made a real contribution to culture change. In England there is now a rather less focused month-long festival; in Scotland and NI, ALW lost its funding, and now no longer occurs at all. By contrast, Wales has maintained ALW, and my impression is that it continues to retain a momentum and impact that is missing elsewhere in the UK. I’m sure you are already speaking with LWI Wales about the WAG approach to ALE, and it would be useful to know also what their view is of ALE vs a month-long festival.

  3. OER/MOOCs. Digital resources and mobile devices are game-changers. Of course there is considerable hype around MOOCs as well as equally vacuous counter-hype, but they present opportunities for extending and widening participation that we really shouldn’t ignore. I suggest contacting Peter Shukie to share his knowledge of who is doing what with COOCs.

  4. Transformative learning. The forthcoming Global Report on Adult Learning & Education (GRALE4) will show that while ALE is in reasonably healthy condition at global level, ALE for citizenship is an exception; in fact it is in parlous health. UNESCO will formally launch report at its November 2019 conference in Paris; if you want a preview of the findings, you should contact the UIL. Incidentally, the UK chose not to respond to the GRALE survey (neither did it respond in 2015).

And here’s how I replied to the invitation to specify ‘the single most important recommendation the Commission could make ‘:

Reintroduce a system of individual learning accounts, supported by guidance, and favouring those who have benefited least from publicly funded post-16 education. Drawing on experience elsewhere, as well as previous experience in the UK, redesigned ILAs will incentivise learners and improve institutional responsiveness. It might take the form of an entitlement, but I wouldn’t at this stage be too prescriptive about administrative shapes – better to get the min design principles right. This will of course be resisted by HEIs and colleges, who would prefer any additional funding to come to them, so recommending something along these lines will send a very clear message about your priorities.