Nick Hurd is the Minister for Civil Society and the MP for Ruislip Northwood Pinner
The contrast could not have been starker. This summer, my TV screen had been full of riots and looting. Like many I was shocked, not least by how disconnected the mostly young people seemed to feel from the wider community.
Yet at the same time over eight thousand 16 year olds were quietly giving almost a quarter of a million hours of community service. I have been lucky enough to visit a number of these groups across the country. In Harrow, for example, a team of young people had been educated about homelessness in the Borough. They slept rough to taste the reality and had then thrown themselves with fantastic energy into raising money for a local charity. The natural leader of the group confided to me that if it had not been for this programme, he would have been in trouble this summer. The programme is National Citizen Service (NCS). It was one of our big commitments at the last election and we are delivering on it.
The first point to make about NCS is that we have taken the time to get the offer right. I remember going to the first working group with our adviser, Paul Oginsky in 2006 – and my colleague Tim Loughton did a fantastic job in opposition to deliver the first pilots with private backing. We are still in the pilot phase – absorbing all the lessons we can to make sure that this bold initiative works for both the young people we are trying to help and the taxpayer who is footing the bill.
The second point to make is that NCS is genuinely different from any other programme. A key point of difference is the big emphasis we place on social mix. NCS throws together young people from very different backgrounds. They get a chance to meet people who they would not have otherwise met. They spend three weeks together, including two weeks living residentially, and one week designing social action projects with community groups, followed by thirty hours volunteering on the project. The first week is spent away from the local community and is focused on teamwork and outdoor physical challenges. The second week is based in the local community and is focused on developing skills and working with local community groups.
The social action projects are designed and delivered by the young people, and often involve pitching for seed funding to a local Dragons’ Den. After they end, participants are invited to a graduation event where their achievements are celebrated by friends, family and community figures. In short, NCS unites young people from different backgrounds. It gives them a common experience which connects them with their own power to make a positive difference in their communities. Along the way they develop skills and confidence that will serve them well as they make the transition to becoming responsible adults.
We could not be more pleased with the reaction of those people who took part last summer. Our largest provider, The Challenge, received scores of 8 and 9 out of ten from young people for programme content and ,on average, parents ranked their willingness to recommend the programme to a friend as a 9.2 out of ten. NCS is not just fun: it can change a young person’s outlook on their life. The Challenge reports that 96% of young people feel more confident as a result, and 94% feel they are better at meeting new people and understanding others. Many of the staff who I met over the summer said it was the most rewarding youth programme they had worked on.
The next stage is to make NCS available to 30,000 16 year olds this summer, and to keep scaling it up so that we meet the Prime Minister’s commitment that 90,000 young people will have the chance to take part in 2014. The aspiration remains to make it available to every 16 year old in the country. We are also developing pathways off NCS so that graduates are presented with compelling opportunities to continue with social action projects or make connections with local employers who recognise the value of the experience they have gone through.
Of course any new programme will attract some sniping. However, we are very clear about three things. First, we know NCS delivers something genuinely new and different from other youth services. Second, it is a huge hit with the young people taking part. Third, it is beginning to prove its value in building social cohesion and responsibility. One NCS “graduate” from Barnsley put it well. “NCS is a brilliant opportunity. It really changed my attitude towards my community and hopefully it will do for others in years to come."
For more details on NCS, please go to www.direct.gov.uk/nationalcitizenservice. If you would like to be part of making this summer a great success, please contact your local provider through this site.