The National Citizen Service (NCS) was launched in 2011. It’s a voluntary personal and social development programme for 15–17 year olds. After criticism at the time of its launch, it is a scheme which has now gathered considerable cross-party support.
Originally designed and implemented by a charity, the scheme has been supported by government funds for the last 5 years. Now, there is a National Citizen Service Bill going through Parliament to put the scheme on a secure footing.
NCS consists of courses for young people in England and Northern Ireland aged 16-17. The courses run for two to four weeks in school holidays, and are based on developing skills, confidence and social action.
Typically, groups of teenagers start with a week-long Outward Bound-type course at a rural activity centre involving physical and team-building activities. After this, they do a residential week, getting a taste of independent living and learning a variety of skills for their future. In the third, and sometimes a fourth, week, the youngsters plan and deliver a project in their local community, often to raise awareness or to fundraise for a particular scheme.
More than 75,000 young people were on the programme last year. It is planned to increase to 300,000 by 2020. They pay £50 towards it, with the rest being met by the taxpayer. More than 200 local organisations are involved in delivering the programme at local level.
I will be supporting the Bill because I think the programmes can play a significant part in developing citizens for the future.
But, as with all such initiatives, we need to be ever-vigilant in the implementation.
First, we must ensure that the scheme is open to everyone and that the most hard-to-reach youngsters – who would probably be those with the most to gain – are actively encouraged to participate. It is worrying that the proportion of NCS graduates who had been in receipt of free school meals has actually fallen since 2011, when it should have been increasing.
Second, the government is proposing a near-30% cut in support for each participant. We must ensure that the quality and breadth of the programme doesn’t fall, and that schemes include young people from diverse communities.
Thirdly, this scheme isn’t and cannot be a substitute for other youth services. The government is forcing massive cuts in local youth services which have engaged so many teenagers previously. That isn’t right.