Matt Hyde: It's time to reform the National Citizen Service, not cut it

A reformed NCS could play a critical role in supporting a generation of young people who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic

Matt Hyde
Matt Hyde

Against a backdrop of speculation about tax cuts it is well understood that the upcoming spending review is going to be tough.

The Treasury will be looking for initiatives that positively impact levelling up communities and help the country recover, while putting a red pen through programmes deemed surplus to requirements.

One such programme the Treasury’s red pen has hovered over in recent budgets is the National Citizen Service.

But it would be a mistake to cut this. Rather, a reformed NCS could play a critical role in supporting a generation of young people who have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic.

One of the flagship projects of Prime Minister David Cameron’s much maligned Big Society project, the NCS is a programme for 16- and 17-year-olds.

Its original aims were laudable, if somewhat familiar to many existing youth organisations – community involvement, transition to adulthood and teamwork, communication and leadership.

Most importantly, it also aimed to encourage social mixing, where young people from different backgrounds come together, taking part in activities designed to show they had more in common at a time of division.

But the NCS has not been without its critics, mainly because it is expensive.

The 2019 evaluation of the NCS summer cohort found a cost of £1,709 per participant for a four-week experience.

With negative stories about costly brand refreshes and questions over value for money, it is understandable that the Treasury might feel more emboldened, as it scrutinises expenditure, to ignore the strong lobbying that has protected NCS over the past 10 years – and decide to get rid of it.

Instead of this, the NCS should be retained and reformed with investment protected so that it can make a significant contribution to enhancing young people’s prospects, which have been so damaged by Covid-19.

As the former catch-up tsar Sir Kevan Collins raised the consequences of a 16-year-old today “not having time out with lots of other teenagers doing what you do and shouldn’t do at 15 together as you learn to tackle the world on your own terms as teenagers do and should".

The future of NCS should be different from its past.

Rather than being a narrow prescriptive programme, NCS should evolve to become an arm's-length body for youth – investing in and empowering organisations that are best placed to deliver on the outcomes of building life skills, improving social mobility and encouraging social mixing.

Indeed, the reviews undertaken by the government and Children’s Commissioner have found that young people want more out-of-school opportunities, adventures away from home and chances to volunteer in their community.

This would enable new providers with decades of expertise to focus on outcomes that could be transformative and could reach significantly more young people. It would also represent better value for money to the taxpayer.

For instance, since 2010 the Youth United Foundation, a network of uniformed organisations, received £25m of government funding, creating 50,000 new opportunities for young people in areas of deprivation supported by 12,000 volunteers – that’s about £500 per young person and with a place lasting at least four years, on average.

Compare this with a unit cost of £1,709 via NCS for just four weeks, and the opportunity is obvious.

The NCS has struggled to deliver at scale due to the rigidity of the programme and the manner in which the services have been historically commissioned.

But many organisations across the youth sector already deliver the NCS objectives.

A reformed NCS could instead turbocharge these organisations with additional funding, distributing this across the youth sector and ensuring we reach even more young people.

Impact can then be measured by NCS to ensure its investment is making the difference to young people who really need support.

Through a reconfigured NCS, the government could capitalise on the upsurge in volunteering and community spirit seen through the pandemic.

The state has often had a confused relationship with civil society, as seen in the execution of the Big Society agenda.

But targeted investment in levelling up communities, especially through volunteer-led programmes, can reach more young people, secure stronger community ownership and provide better bang for their buck for taxpayers.

Most importantly, it can make a bigger difference to young people’s lives – enhancing their skills and wellbeing.

Matt Hyde is chief executive of the Scouts

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