"Older people have misconceptions about young people. What they don't realise is that young people have misconceptions about other young people". That's what I was told by one of the 16-year-olds who took part in the 2010 National Citizen Service pilot. It's one of the challenges we're trying to address through this ground-breaking programme.
Too many teenagers feel disaffected from society – and from each other. Too often we see passionate and idealistic young people, who want to make a difference, slowly drift into disorder and disobedience. They don’t feel connected to their communities and they are unsure what direction their lives should take.
National Citizen Service (NCS) will help change that. A kind of non-military national service, it’s going to mix young people from different backgrounds in a way that doesn’t happen right now. It’s going to teach them what it means to be socially responsible. Above all it’s going to inspire a generation of young people to appreciate what they can achieve and how they can be part of the Big Society.
So what is it? It’s a two-month programme, which will mix sixteen year olds from a variety of backgrounds, and will include a two week stay away from home. The first two weeks of the programme will be based in residential accommodation and will involve tough physical activities that are designed to challenge the young people, boost their confidence and build their teamwork and leadership skills. They will then return home and spend a further five weeks working in teams to develop a project that will help to change something they don’t like about their communities; this could be a social action project to help regenerate a community centre, teach young kids sport or care for old people.
We piloted NCS on a small scale when in opposition and the effect the experience had on those attending was amazing, and truly humbling. We worked with a great charity to setup and run the pilots and every young person I have spoken to who took part was absolutely evangelical about the benefits.
So whenever anyone asks me what I mean by the Big Society, I point to NCS. This programme involves government, charities, businesses and volunteers coming together to transform the lives of our young people. I’m not old enough to have done National Service, but I remember the transformative effect that it had – bringing people from different backgrounds together towards a common purpose. I am just as ambitious for NCS – I want it to be a rite of passage programme that will bring Britain back together.
Starting in July, after exams have finished, twelve NCS pilot programmes will take place across the country with a total of 11,000 available. All twelve pilots are now open to applications from teenagers who have just turned or are about to turn sixteen – and who would normally have completed Year 11 at school. I would encourage everyone to go to visit our Facebook page at and find out more about the programme, including where in the country the pilots will be happening and get as many people as possible signed up.
I really believe this programme will over time make a massive difference. It won't be overnight. It'll take a generation for it to have its full effect. According to an ancient African proverb: the best time to plant a tree was twenty years ago. The second best time is now. Planting this tree now will over time make a transformative contribution to building the Big Society we want.