Are children citizens in Britain or citizens-in-preparation? At the heart of Berry Mayall’s paper to the Voluntary Action History seminar is this question. If children are always subordinate to adults (which they generally are), then can they ever really take on voluntary work on a ‘voluntary’ basis? It is an interesting set of questions to ask with, perhaps, no easy answer. In this example, Mayall talks about the ‘voluntary’ contribution of children during the Second World War. Mayall sees this as a transformative moment when childhood began to be viewed in a different way. Until the onset of war it was far from uncommon (in fact it was most common) for children to leave school at age 13 or 14 to start work. Only upper class children generally went on to a secondary school of any form. During the war itself, children were asked to ‘volunteer’ their time to the war effort. This might include gardening (i.e. growing food), teaching younger children, working in hospitals or acting as messengers. Girls might be asked to work in canteens whilst boys in some cases worked on munitions. Saving schemes and special fund raising events enabled children to volunteer their money as well to the greater war effort.
Mayall notes how important the term ‘voluntary’ was in this process. In Britain it was vitally important to appear democratic and therefore different than the dictatorships against which they fought. The realisation, also, that many children did not have time for these voluntary activities because they were already working hard on their actual jobs, brought home the need to change policy towards children, which, after the war, gave way to a rise of importance to secondary education and arguably, to further and higher education.