The National Citizens Service (NCS) was born from the Big Society movement in 2012. This summer, as in previous years, its programme will consists of three activities for 15 to 17 year olds over a four week period. A residential week of activities, a week developing life skills and a week doing some kind of community project. It is intended to promote ‘social action‘, ‘social cohesion‘ and ‘social mobility‘
Lots of money has gone into it, around £1.3bn invested in the spending review period 2016-2020, and its expansion has been very fast—which has led to questions about its quality and expensive unfilled places.
It is also pretty popular with the political classes and most MPs have had photos taken with their local NCS activity. There are even some who see it as a version of the quasi-mystical National Service that supposedly brought the nation together in times past.
But with a spending review coming, does the NCS deserve to survive?
While there are many good things about NCS, and government certainly spends money on far less effective things, it’s still worth a hard look at it. The National Audit Office (NAO) recently looked at this and on any sensible reading of their report it is hard to see them having given NCS anything much more than a C+.
Questions of such a big programme are legitimate and fall into several categories. First, the way it was set up and operates; second, what are its aims; third, whether it achieves much and at what value for money; and last, whether it is the right way to spend limited money on younger people.
The setup of the NCS was controversial. If government wanted young people to have more experience of volunteering and an opportunity to bond, then the voluntary sector could easily have delivered this and at a lower cost. Instead they went for a big, top down, contracting approach which excluded many players. While some links are now being made with youth volunteering outfits—like the Scouts—arguably, starting something new was a lot of wasted effort and the wrong approach if one wanted sustainable outcomes.
NCS is also confused about its aims. Formally it has it’s three goals—mixing young people from diverse backgrounds, giving them skills, and beginning a lifetime of social action. Each are laudable, but the way you design a blended programme like this is very different to what you would do if you were focusing just on one area. Trying to combine them arguably ends up missing all the targets, especially as you only have a maximum of four weeks. No wonder a recent review by Loughborough University academics said the NCS has an ‘identity crisis’.
So, given all this, does it achieve much? There have been lots of attempts to get a handle on this. While most have tried hard to do the analysis well, they mainly come down to questionnaires about young people’s attitudes before and after NCS. Researchers then ascribe all sorts of consequences if they say, for example, they feel better able to be leader or have the skills to get a job. It’s not bad work, but it is hardly convincing. The sustainability of many of the impacts, like an increased desire to get involved in volunteering, is not well evidenced and nor is it likely as there is little follow up to NCS.
Not surprisingly the NAO say it is too early to say if the NCS is meeting its aims—a slightly different take to the NCS website that says, ‘Click here to view how NCS is making a massive impact’.
So finally, is this right place to spend money on youth? There are questions as to whether it is really attracting the kids who could really do with help. Despite above average participation by young people from poorer backgrounds, most people agree that the ‘hardest to help’ young people do not join NCS for a variety of reasons. At a conference I spoke at recently on NCS an impressive year 12 student said that many of her friends had done NCS and had enjoyed it. But that it had little pull on those young people who were currently joining gangs and using knives too much—and that while she knew that NCS had been showered with cash despite austerity, the youth clubs that such kids might have gone to had all been disappearing as councils have slashed support to them. Sobering stuff.
So does the NCS deserve to survive? There seems too much political capital invested—ex PM David Cameron is on the NCS board—for the Treasury to axe it. But we may well have seen ‘peak NCS’. The drive to get more young people on it—that the NAO showed could only be achieved if the cost per person fell, threatening quality—is surely going to recede. And government, looking not least at the politics—will be looking for other ways to spend money aimed at young people. A focus on understanding what is really working in NCS—most likely the boost to leadership skills—and adapting the scheme to that, may well be the most sensible way ahead.