Big Society: the next generation

Liverpool Council leader Joe Anderson recently wrote to David Cameron announcing his authority’s decision to abandon its ‘vanguard’ status under the Government’s Big Society initiative.

Bemoaning the devastation that area-based grant funding cuts and an eye-watering expenditure settlement would wreak upon the city’s voluntary and community sectors, he asked, rhetorically, ‘how can the city council support the Big Society and its aim to help communities do more for themselves when we will have to cut the lifeline to hundreds of… vital and worthwhile groups?’

How, indeed? This got me thinking that the birth of the Big Society may take longer than the government expects.

So, when Son and Daughter came home after an ‘enterprise day’ at their Liverpool school – ‘bit of a doss’, Son informed me in advance – I was all ears. When he finally succumbed to the barrage of questioning he needs to progress beyond grunt stage, Son informed me that his team had been eliminated in the semi-finals of an enterprise competition, having done all its creative work in the first half hour and smoked metaphorical adolescent cigars for the remainder of the session. ‘Reasonable effort, Son’, said I.

‘Was the opposition simply better on the day?’ Matter of opinion, apparently. Son’s team had produced what ‘everyone’ agreed to be the best product: a sticker that folk could display on their bags, warning potential thieves that they would receive a debilitating electric shock should they try to get their hands inside. The first few bags displaying said sticker would be fitted with a genuine shock-stick that the owner could disable with an accompanying fob. Once the efficacy of this system had been established in the eyes of the criminal public, though, who would want to risk sticking their mitts into a bag with such a sticker on display, cattle prod-protected or no?

Hey presto: symbolic safety, on the cheap. Brilliant idea. So why didn’t it win? ‘We were just useless at making the pitch’, said Son, ‘and apparently it’s all in the pitch.’

Daughter’s group, however, had waltzed off with her year’s gold medal for an altogether more complex scheme, involving trainee teachers providing extra-curricular tutoring services to pupils, designed to enable them to achieve better exam grades. More experienced, volunteer teachers would mentor the trainees, who could list their participation in the scheme on their CVs, hence improving their job prospects.

Would that be sufficient incentive for trainees to take part, I wondered? Daughter’s group had thought of that, and had decided that pupil contributions of £3 apiece per hour would get the trainees out of bed of a Saturday morning. So far, so good. And would pupils be happy to forego the joys that three quid spent on something else would otherwise afford them? ‘Well, obviously it wouldn’t have actually worked’, said Daughter, ‘but we still won’. Her prize was a £10 voucher to be spent in one of the global franchises in Liverpool 1. Result.


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