Adam Wildman is a researcher at ResPublica. He writes here in a personal capacity.
The image of National Service sits deep in the British psyche. Even though formal conscription ended in 1963 and the appetite for mandatory military service remains fairly low, the ethos underpinning National Service still conjures up a positive vision of an England where young people were taught self-respect, discipline and autonomy.
Many believe that the loss of National Service deprived our young people, particularly those from poorer backgrounds, of the opportunity to develop inter-personal skills and self-belief. It is for this reason that Prince Harry, amongst others, have called for the return of National Service.
In a nod to this national feeling, the Prime Minister launched the National Citizen Service (NCS) in 2011. Just like National Service, NCS is an initiative aimed at our young people. Its primary goal is to bring pupils from different backgrounds together over a three week period to help them develop confidence, self-awareness and responsibility.
Last year, roughly 60,000 young people took part in the programme. Ipsos Mori found that that the scheme improved participants’ confidence, interpersonal skills and desire to work with others. Interestingly, it was the poorest pupils – those on Free School Meals – that evidenced the greater improvements, indicating the progressive nature of the scheme.
NCS participants have to provide 30 hours of volunteering. For the whole cohort, the economic value of these volunteering hours has been estimated at £11.4 million, with programme costs of £5.9 million. The programme, therefore, produced volunteering benefits of £5.5 million – or £1.90 for every £1 spent. That indicated that NCS is value for money for the taxpayer. But perhaps the greatest benefits NCS bestows are on social capital and poverty.
As Conservatives we need to acknowledge that poverty is a real and stubborn phenomenon in Britain. Not only are the costs of poverty significant to the individual, with those living in deprived areas dying seven years sooner than the average, the public costs are also substantial. A report by the Bright Blue think tank found that child poverty alone costs the economy £29 billion every year.
A primary cause of poverty is a lack of social capital. Whereas economic capital refers to personal finances, social capital refers to the value of social networks. It is the prerequisite for the success of entrepreneurs; the foundation of trust in a community; and a key reason why certain ethnic groups, like Ugandan Asians, outperform others over time.
The great issue with social capital is that it is often lacking in those from poorer backgrounds. This acts as a barrier for those seeking to escape poverty. Robert Putnam in his now famous Bowling Alone highlighted that the single biggest cause for the growing wealth divide is the lack of social capital in low-income communities. Research by the Social Integration Commission has shown that this deficit in poor communities costs Britain approximately £6 billion every year.
Through its emphasis on volunteering and integration, NCS improves the social capital of its participants. It was because of this and its increasing popularity that David Cameron announced the expansion of the programme. By 2021, 60 per cent of school pupils will benefit from the scheme, to the cost of £250m per annum. Such a funding commitment is to be welcomed.
However, there is one significant flaw in the initiative: National Citizen Service is completely voluntary. The scheme is largely aimed at engaging our disaffected youth. Yet this scheme, because it is voluntary, fails to engage the majority of England’s pupils. Even after the expansion, four out of ten will still miss out on this opportunity.
The idea of compulsion often generates a lot concern from those on the centre-right. It need not so, particularly when you consider certain examples. It is rightly non-voluntary to take part in jury service, National Service in its original form was mandatory and, more relevantly, it is compulsory to attend school. If NCS is a valuable part of a young person’s transition into adulthood, then surely it should be treated as other parts of the school curriculum and made mandatory.
Going by the Government’s own figures, making the NCS mandatory would cost roughly £415 million. This may seem expensive to some, but when you compare it to the overall school budget of £26.5 billion or the £29 billion cost of child poverty, rolling out a mandatory NCS scheme that could improve the life chances of our poorest pupils must be given serious consideration.
National Service may be a thing of the past, but its underlying ethos can continue to provide benefits to all of our young people. But only if NCS is made compulsory.