To say that the Big Society as a political concept has divided opinion ever since it was brought to the public’s attention would very much be an understatement. I have been an outspoken voice with regard to how it has failed to translate into tangible outputs, particularly with regard to supporting small charities and social enterprises. But its flagship youth policy, National Citizen Service (NCS), is something that we can all celebrate as a legacy piece that will help to develop a new generation of community activists for years to come.
NCS is now in its second pilot year, and the results have been fantastic. 97% of the young people that have been on the summer scheme have said that they would recommend it to their peers. As the programme expands we hope to see charities benefiting from a new generation of volunteers. The five week programme is designed in such a way as to give a young person the leadership skills and tools to serve his or her local area. This year will also see an expansion to the programme with a new graduate scheme, so all the young people that have been involved in NCS can have access to ongoing support as they continue on their journey. It will also see the programme rightly move from being overseen by the Cabinet Office to being a part of the Department for Education.
There have been a number of criticisms for the programme. The most common being that it costs quite a lot of money, and that the availability of this cash has coincided with savage cuts to youth services by local authorities across England. This does have an element of truth to it, as local authorities have identified youth services as an easy target when attempting to balance their finances in challenging times. Some of the most vulnerable young people have suffered as a result, and there is a serious need for someone in government to put pressure on local authorities to make sure they are still providing a good service for young people. But the reality is that the funding for National Citizen Service has not come from children's services budgets. Sadly, the cuts to youth services would have happened regardless of whether we had this programme or not. The pilots have been partly funded by what would have been the community cohesion budget, had we still had a Minister for Community Cohesion. It was one of the first things to go once the coalition came into power. RIP!
Another criticism of NCS has been about the organisations providing the service. Very large companies are of course the most likely to be able to win multimillion pound contracts to deliver this nationwide programme, and smaller youth organisations simply do not have the ability to compete. But I believe many of the current providers have set an outstanding example for major deliverers of other public services. They have adopted a very ‘Big Society’ approach by allowing local community groups the opportunity to deliver NCS within their local areas, whilst they support them with their management know-how. Evidence would suggest that some of these large providers have been better than others at creating such relationships, but it has certainly been a lifeline for a lot of local groups. I met one such local community group in Essex last month and they were very clear that NCS has become the one thing that is allowing them to continue to employ staff that have been with them for between 10 and 20 years. I would hope that this continues to be the case as we look forward to the nationwide rollout in 2013.
The most Conservative voiced criticism of National Citizen Service to date is not the cost or procurement challenges of the scheme, but in fact that it is not yet compulsory for all 16 year olds to participate in this as a rite of passage. I have to say that I agree with the likes of Boris Johnson who says that it should in fact be compulsory for every young person to go on the scheme after finishing year 11. The skills developed, opportunity to interact with people from different backgrounds, and service to local communities, makes National Citizen Service something that will stay with a young person for the rest of their lives.
As we approach the one year anniversary of the terrible riots that swept across the nation, we must continue to ask ourselves why so many young people were so willing to destroy the very communities from within which they reside. We cannot forget those terrible scenes of 2011 because many of the underlining challenges of a ‘broken society’ still exist. Youth unemployment is still high, fathers are still absent in many households, children are still living in poverty, and violent crime (particularly within inner city areas) continues to be a problem. NCS may not be the only cure for such sicknesses, but it will certainly play a part in developing a society that is more inclusive, more cohesive, and more positive.