Last Sunday, I went with my son and wife to pick up our daughter-in-law from her work at the Mississauga Food Bank near Toronto. Normally the Food Bank is closed at the weekend, but the previous weekend having been Thanksgiving, teams of volunteers were needed to sort all the donations of food from the general public. Shoppers at local supermarkets had been asked to purchase certain items along with their shopping and then place them in special collection crates.
When we arrived, there was a queue of high school age youngsters waiting to have their volunteer records signed off by the directors. We learned that community volunteering is built into the Ontario education system. High school kids are expected to do a certain amount with local charities and community groups, and this becomes part of their educational record. Whereas in the UK, students have to opt in (perhaps via the Duke of Edinburgh award scheme), in Canada it is a normal part of growing up. This then feeds into the rest of the culture, with individuals and businesses providing not only money but energy and expertise to the voluntary sector.
As I reflect on this, I can’t help wondering how the Big Society envisioned by our coalition government would benefit from an educational system that took community service as part of our citizenship more seriously. Shouldn’t education be more than simply being prepared for future employment? How can we encourage all levels of our society to take an interest in the needs of our more vulnerable members?