Last October I spent a truly brilliant afternoon at Twickenham – not watching the rugby, but attending a graduation ceremony for some very impressive 16 year olds who had just completed their National Citizen Service (NCS) during their summer holidays. They were, in many cases, accompanied by proud parents and some were invited to speak about their experience – 100% thumbs up sums up their response. They all received certificates, including one signed by the Prime Minister, and they then moved to another floor of the stadium where a charity fair awaited them. Within minutes, they were all signing up to a variety of volunteering opportunities. Clearly they wanted to continue what they had already started.
What started in the pilot scheme last summer is planned, eventually, to become a rite of passage for all 16 year olds. At a minimum cost – and with bursaries available for those who couldn’t otherwise afford to attend – they will all get the chance to spend a few weeks of their summer school holiday with others from a wide variety of backgrounds, communities and schools, learning to build teams and to put those teams to good use on behalf of their neighbourhoods. It is, of course, a massive challenge, but high expectations usually produce the best results.
The combination of team-building exercises on outward bound courses, mentoring for the teams as they carry out charitable projects and the chance to learn more about chosen subjects and skills, proved last summer to be a successful mix. Certainly, the West Londoners I spent time with, as they planned their social action projects, exuded confidence, enthusiasm and commitment. They had also succeeded in working together in teams made up of complete strangers – until they got to know each other.
Now we are about to move into the second year of NCS and hoping to expand the numbers of places available from the 8,500 on the pilot. Right across the country those providers who are running the scheme in the various regions are busy signing up those who want to participate. The key message is that they will find themselves challenged, tested and exhausted, but on the evidence so far, they will also return with a new sense of self-respect, confidence and some new best friends as well. Last year, over 200,000 hours of community service were delivered by NCS – this year it is expected to top 700,000.
The figures for last year are compelling: 93 percent of those who took part say they would definitely recommend it to their friends, 85 percent said it helped them to understand better people from different backgrounds and 77 percent say they are now more likely to help out in their communities. In fact, the best ambassadors going out to recruit the next wave are those who graduated last year.
When I came back to speak in Parliament after the riot in Ealing last summer, I told colleagues I was certain that none of the young people doing NCS, who I had spent time with just a week before, would have taken part in the mayhem. I checked after and was told that some of them had been encouraged by friends to join but not a single one of them had done so, they were too busy with their projects. Good result. Now's a good time for everyone to get behind NCS and encourage as many to take part as they can – there is still time to get involved.