What is the National Citizen Service?

Making citizens. Sarah Mills , Author provided

It describes itself as the fastest growing youth movement in the UK for a century. Launched in 2011, the National Citizen Service (NCS) is a government funded voluntary youth programme for 15 to 17-year-olds.

A further £1.2 billion pound investment was announced in the 2016 Queen’s Speech as part of a new permanent statutory footing which will mean that all schools have a duty to promote NCS. But what is it, and what impact has it had on young people’s lives?

NCS is a two to four-week programme that has so far reached over 200,000 teenagers in England and Northern Ireland. It starts with an adventurous outdoor camping experience, followed by “skillsbuilding” activities and a social action volunteer project. NCS costs participants £50 to complete, with bursaries available for those unable to meet the cost.

These activities may sound familiar. The Duke of Edinburgh Award, Scout Association and other youth organisations have always focused on outdoor education and “active citizenship”. In 1908, the original subtitle of Scouting for Boys was “an instruction in good citizenship”.

NCS marks a shift change. Its activities – as a form of youth work and informal education – were once the traditional purview of the voluntary sector and local authority youth clubs. Yet NCS is not driven by the collective will of a voluntary base, but Whitehall.

The Conservative party presented and piloted early ideas for a “school leaver programme” in opposition. The NCS further developed during 2010, alongside David Cameron’s vision for a “Big Society” and was showcased in the coalition’s 2011 Giving White Paper to foster a new culture of philanthropic values. This seems to be working. The National Council for Voluntary Organisations recently reported a dramatic rise in volunteering among 16 to 25-year-olds, naming NCS as one of the likely “pushes”.

Impact on young people

In 2011, the House of Commons Education Select Committee asked if NCS was a “good principle” but had “bad timing”. Its growth has occurred in austere times of public sector cuts to local youth services. The youth worker union UNITE – understandably bruised – states that “young people are not just citizens in the summer”.

A series of Ipsos MORI evaluations show the positive impacts NCS has in young people’s lives: nine out of ten of its graduates in 2014 felt they have developed useful skills for the future.

My own research with my colleague Catherine Waite has also explored young people’s experiences. Interviews with NCS participants who graduated in different years were full of testimonials about the scheme’s impact in boosting confidence and inspiring futures. One 17-year-old said:

It’s been the best year of my life … I think it will be difficult to beat, whatever I go through!

We have also interviewed former and current delivery providers who do NCS on the ground. These are a complete mix of private sector partnerships, social enterprises and voluntary sector charities who bid for fixed-term contracts from the Cabinet Office. While the majority of people interviewed spoke about the benefits of collaborative working, several smaller organisations faced challenges. One manager said:

The actual programme is fantastic, it’s exactly akin to what we do … What’s been challenging is … probably the bureaucracy and structure we’ve had to work with.

It’s also clear that this competitive model has created tensions – and winner and losers – in the wider voluntary youth sector. The recent merger of NCVYS and Ambition as a representative “umbrella” body for the sector in England is a sign that there is demand for a united “voice” that supports both young people and organisations in this shifting landscape.

The government’s newly announced National Citizen Service Bill means that all state secondary schools, academies, private schools and councils will be required to promote NCS. This is a significant moment in re-shaping the “boundaries” of formal and informal education.

There will now be a duty for schools to champion NCS as part of pupils’ holiday time – with volunteering opportunities for trainee teachers.

Which nation?

The UK prime minister, David Cameron, stated that the government is “making NCS a permanent feature of British life”. This raises an interesting question about NCS, devolution and “Britishness” and which nation is the focus of a “national” citizen service.

NCS is active in England and now Northern Ireland, but the Welsh government’s report on a recent pilot was lukewarm, citing “overlaps” with existing opportunities. There is also no NCS presence in Scotland.

NCS has an ambitious goal to reach a million graduates by 2020. To achieve this, it will need to build bridges with smaller charities, youth workers and demonstrate flexibility with devolved administrations. The impassioned call from NCS’s chief executive to “support the next generations of citizens to be more confident and capable, connected and compassionate” is easy to support. The wider state infrastructure, funding and delivery model of NCS is more difficult to champion.

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