Analysis: National Citizen Service - 'A good start, but it needs more work'

Andy Hillier talks to young people and charity workers on a National Citizen Service pilot scheme and hears a positive message tempered by questions about the structure of the activities and how to get participants from varied backgrounds

National Citizen Service participants
National Citizen Service participants

A group of teenagers sit in a room in Portsmouth recounting tales of getting lost on orienteering exercises, pushing each other off high poles and surviving without TV.

They have spent the past six weeks taking part in adventurous activities and volunteering in their communities as part of a pilot programme for the National Citizen Service, the Prime Minister's flagship programme designed to imbue a sense of citizenship in 16-year-olds and divert them from trouble.

They have had a week of outdoor activities away from home followed by a week-long residential stay nearer home, working on a community project. Weeks three to six involved a mixture of working on the project and other local volunteering.

This group of 13 young people was recruited by the Respect Programme, a charitable arm of Portsmouth Football Club that was commissioned to run the programme by the national young people's charity Catch22, one of 12 providers awarded contracts by the government to run the NCS.

The group comes across as articulate and friendly. Fashion student Polly Bampton, 16, says the experience has been fantastic. "We've had to bond and to learn to work as a team," she says. Harry Bryne, also 16, who is planning to join the Royal Navy, says the programme has been "brilliant".

Community action

In the community action phase, the group created a website called Activiteens with the aim of making 11 to 16-year-olds aware of activities available locally. Charities including the Salvation Army, a local disability youth group and a children's playground all received their help, and they raised £500 for good causes.

Apart from occasionally helping junior football teams, none of them had previously given their time to charities. Now many plan to get more involved. Bampton says: "When we went to the volunteering places, it made you feel really good because you were doing something to help people. I definitely intend to keep on volunteering."

National Citizen Service participantsDavid Cameron wants all the country's estimated 600,000 16-year-olds to follow their example and take part in the NCS each year as a rite of passage, but this summer started with a more manageable target of 11,000, of which 8,500 were taken up. Next year, it will be 30,000.

The government is keen to portray the scheme as the best way to enable young people from diverse backgrounds to work together, learn about respect and give something back to society. In the wake of the riots, the Prime Minister was quick to point to the NCS as a way of giving disillusioned young people a purpose "beyond getting smashed on drink and drugs".

What is less clear about the Portsmouth programme is how successful it was in the stated NCS aim of creating "a more cohesive society" by mixing young people from different backgrounds and encouraging participants to become "more active and responsible citizens".

Diverse backgrounds

Attracting young people from diverse backgrounds proved a challenge. Respect was only awarded an NCS contract in March, leaving it less than three months to find 13 young people willing to give up their entire summer holiday. Julian Wadsworth, Respect programme manager, concedes it was not straightforward.

"Gaining access to Year 11 pupils from different local schools took a bit of time," he says. "That may have been because some of the teachers had not heard of the NCS. It would have made our lives easier if it had been better known."

Adverts were placed in the press and parents' evenings held. Respect also approached a local special school to find a young person with a disability who could take part. A core group of teenagers was quickly recruited, but some parents and young people were deterred when they discovered the necessary level of commitment.

In the end, the programme recruited 11 young people aged 16 - one of whom was Asian - as well as a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old with Down's syndrome. Wadsworth dismisses the suggestion that this is a cohort of largely white, middle-class young people. "We had a couple of young people who had been picked up by the police for low-level stuff, although we didn't have anyone who had been to a youth court or in custody," he says.

Vicky Cleaver, accreditation coordinator for Respect, describes the young people who have taken part as a mixed bag. "This group isn't all A-grade students," she says. "Some have dyslexia or haven't been attending school too well."

Young people on Portsmouth's NCS pilot created a website listing local youth activities

Working with offenders

Respect has largely forged its reputation working with the most prolific young offenders, which raises the question why the programme didn't attract more challenging young people. Wadsworth says it did try. "We spoke to them about the course and encouraged them," he says. "But when we arranged meetings they didn't turn up."

He also says Respect was not keen to "set itself up for a fall" by trying to work with a lot of challenging young people as well as a young person with a disability who required a lot of additional support.

"If we were to run the course again and we had more time, we could then look to get more young offenders involved," he says. "But it would probably mean working with a smaller group."

The initial week-long stay at the High Ashurst Outdoor Education Centre near Dorking in Surrey was the most popular part of the scheme. The second residential phase in their own community - in this instance a local Royal Navy base - was also seen as rewarding, but more regimented. The programme leaders weren't convinced of the merits of two week-long residential breaks. "Running them back to back has been very hard work for a small team like ours," says Wadsworth.

Cleaver suggests making the residential part shorter and splitting up the weeks. "I'd probably book-end the programme," she says. "You could have a residential at the start where people get to know each other, and then maybe a weekend residential at the end." This would also reduce costs, she adds.

High costs

In June, the education select committee was highly critical of the costs. This year's six-week programme is costing more than £1,300 a place, compared with £1,228 spent in Germany providing work-based volunteering for young people for a whole year. Voluntary sector leaders and trade unions have been equally critical of the government's commitment, at a time of widespread cuts, of at least £50m to the pilot programme over the next two years.

The programme leaders believe there is great merit in the NCS. Cleaver says it has been "a fantastic opportunity for the young people". Louis Faith, 17, a young volunteer leader, agrees, but questions spending significant sums on it when services such as youth clubs face cuts. "I go to a youth club at least twice a week," he says. "The club is in a rough area and there are usually 20 young people outside waiting for it to open. It would be wrong to cut off youth clubs to save the NCS."

The young people will be giving feedback to researchers from the National Centre for Social Research. In the meantime, Wadsworth cautions politicians against rolling out the scheme further until hard evidence emerges of the difference it makes. "You have to look at the concept before more money is invested," he says. "It's a pilot scheme and it has to be properly evaluated. We have to see what impact it has had."


Take two: Motiv8

Another Portsmouth-based charity, Motiv8, recruited most of the 11 young people on its NCS pilot scheme from the deprived areas where it works, although it did attract some teenagers from better-off backgrounds. Charlie Adie, Motiv8 chief executive, says the scheme was very successful, but won't say why two young people dropped out.

The main change Adie would like is more time to bring different groups together. Young people from a variety of backgrounds on different NCS schemes were expected to live and work together during the first week's stay at High Ashurst Outdoor Education Centre, which he says led to some problems. "We run a lot of residential breaks and find that it's best for the young people to get to know each other before they go away," he says.

Other charities in more affluent areas recruited from the areas they knew best, says Adie, with the result that some groups did not attract as many young people from underprivileged backgrounds.

The Motiv8 group was at the outdoor centre the same week as the one from the Respect Programme (see main feature above). The Respect group observed that the some of the Motiv8 group appeared to come from more challenging backgrounds and weren't as willing to take part in activities.

Adie dismisses the notion that the programme is too prescriptive for more challenging young people. "I don't think such comments are particularly helpful," he says. "There's a real danger that we end up stereotyping if we say only certain young people benefit from NCS."

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