National Citizen Service is one of the most exciting youth policies in a generation. The Prime Minister passionately believes in the program’s potential to strengthen and benefit our communities and he is not alone. An impressive list of high profile people have spoken out in support of the initiative including Sir Michael Caine, Dame Kelly Holmes, Amir Khan, Ian Wright and Josh Lewsey. Thousands of young people are now volunteering to play their part and the wider public are ready for a big and bold youth policy idea. An Ipsos Mori survey last summer found that 81 percent of the public approve of the plans to introduce National Citizen Service.
Earlier this summer however, the Education Select Committee produced its report into ‘the provision of services beyond the school/college day for young people, primarily aged 13-25.’ Rather oddly at the time the press release trailing the report was dominated by criticism of the Government’s flagship National Citizen Service. I say odd because NCS is only targeted at 16 year olds and therefore should only account for a small part of this report into youth services.
It is even odder, if not frustrating, because most of the witnesses who appeared in front of the Committee, including myself, were universally positive about NCS, even though they chose not to interview any of the successful alumni from the previous year pilots run by the Challenge charity. The committee quite rightly identified the need to produce youth services based on evidence of quality impacts. That is why this year the Government is proceeding cautiously with Pilots for 10,000 NCS places extended to 30,000 next year from which we can learn if we are achieving quality impacts before deciding whether it should be rolled out to all 16 year olds.
It struck me that this was a press release in search of a report. I am particularly concerned that, other than a trip to Germany, the Committee failed to get out and visit youth projects around the country. Most weeks I am able to escape the DfE to see some of the great youth work going on at first hand and when I am not, I have a number of really useful groups of young people to come in and tell me about it ‘like it is.’ I very much hope therefore that members of the Education Select Committee are taking up my invitation to visit some of the National Citizen Service pilots which are going on around the summer from Cornwall to Carlisle, as I have been doing.
Last week I spent the morning with groups of NCS recruits in Carlisle and Dorking. They were all having a fantastic time and were really enthusiastic about the project. Every one of them said they would recommend NCS to their friends whilst many of the inspiring youth leaders running the course only regretted not having had something like this when they were younger. They spoke of the great team bonding that had been going on before their eyes and how previously shy and retiring violets from challenging backgrounds were really coming out of their shells.
On Wednesday I spent a challenging time myself climbing up sheer walls and being hauled up log ladders by team mates in an outward pursuits facility in the woods around Dorking. On Monday I was with a group from Carlisle who had returned exhausted and challenged from their adventure week away and were now engaging with the local police on community issues and combating stereotypical perceptions. The third week is spent back in their home towns setting up a community benefit project which will involve at least 30 hours subsequent volunteering time and hopefully an ongoing commitment and refreshed engagement. Those that make it through will then graduate and become NCS alumni – ambassadors for positive youth and hopefully many will come back and help with next year’s cohort and continue to guide the local projects they have initiated.
This isn’t just some flash in the pan gimmick. This is a long term plan for engaging more young people positively in society, challenging negative perceptions of our young people and helping kids to grow up. It was one of the first initiatives set up by David Cameron after becoming Conservative Party leader and I have been working over the last few years with our youth policy adviser Paul Oginsky who previously ran Weston Spirit, and others, to make it a reality. We have worked with a huge range of expert organisations in the youth sector from Duke of Edinburgh Awards to Prince’s Trust and the uniformed services, and of course many young people themselves. Far from trying to replicate what they do we have endeavoured to include the best parts of what they already deliver and make it more universal. NCS is not just about volunteering but it is about personal development, social mixing, community engagement, transition to adulthood and rites of passage. Unlike many cultures, we do the last of these very badly in the UK.
When does a teenager in Britain actually become an adult? Is it after the first fag behind the bike sheds, the first illicit underage drink or the first sexual encounter? Wouldn’t it be a better benchmark to look on those who have made it through a challenging time doing their NCS as having gone through some form of transition and earned the greater respect that we expect as an adult? If done properly, NCS is not some cheap summer camp or walk in the park, it is a test of resolve and commitment. Some will fail or quit, but most won’t.
The other important feature about NCS is that it aims to attract young people from both all parts of communities, socially, ethnically and regionally, and then mix them up. Its success will be judged not on how many good middle class kids with ten GCSEs under their belt come on the course, much as we want them to, but how many kids caught up in the youth justice system, with disabilities or from often hard to reach ethnic groups throw themselves into it.
Over the last two summers the Challenge charity have run limited pilots based on the NCS model involving young people from Hammersmith, Southwark and Birmingham. When I went to join them last year I was struck by how many Muslim girls had enrolled and how difficult it was to pick out the young people from independent schools as they all mucked in with their team challenges. Whilst I realise that a lot of existing youth organisations are doing some great work in social mixing I also want to throw together kids who come with a totally different perspective – CCF diehards engaging with pacifists, UKYP stalwarts rubbing shoulders with anarchists!
This year twelve different youth organisations or federations of youth organisations tendered to deliver 10,000 places across the country, and they are now well underway. Many involve smaller youth groups with particular expertise in accessing difficult to engage young people. Some of those I met in Dorking on the pilot being run by Catch 22 were children in care, for example, and certainly gave me a run for my money! NCS is not a youth organisation in itself, we are a brand harnessing the best expertise that already exists in the youth sector and giving them a renewed focus and vigour. But it is a brand that I hope will become universally recognised and schools, youth clubs and other organisations will be gearing up for how they can prepare their teenagers to sign up for their NCS experience.
The goal is to have an NCS-founded community project in every city, town and village in the country – set up by young people through NCS and run by young people with the help of other local youth groups, voluntary organisations, councils, schools and companies. Perhaps then the doubters who are quick to buy the clichéd media headlines about anti-social young people will think twice before writing them off. If we can have a society that is positive about its young people then surely that is the basis for investing in our future and being optimistic about it. This is one of the most exciting projects being delivered by this Government and if we get it right it has the power to be really transformational for a whole generation in a way that is sustainable.
Positive for Youth is the theme of everything we are doing in the DfE around youth policy, and I have formed a Youth Action Group including ministers across nine different Government departments which aims to put the youth perspective on all policy we develop. This is a stark contrast from the years of negative stereotypes dominating the media exacerbated by a Government that framed young people in the context of the Respect Agenda, ASBOs, curfew orders and the insidiously discriminating mosquito device.
Positive for Youth was the title of the youth summit I held at the QEII Centre in March which brought together a wide cross-section of over 300 youth organisations, community leaders, businesses and young people. From that platform we are developing a new and comprehensive Positive for Youth policy document due to be published in the autumn. If it is to be successful then it is essential that it has the buy-in of young people themselves, which is why we have produced a series of 16 interactive draft policy papers for discussion on the DfE website. The response so far from young people has been excellent and I will not rush to produce the final document until we have consulted fully and can produce something which can boast the ownership of young people too. Perhaps the Select Committee can learn something from it too!