Born from David Cameron’s strong statement in his 2010 manifesto: “there is a tragic waste of potential that shames the nation”, NCS was introduced.
As part of the cabinet’s ‘Big Society’ project to bring together communities, National Citizen Service, was established under the Coalition government in 2010 to inspire 15-17 year olds to challenge themselves by taking on out of the ordinary activities and learn some new skills in the process.
Cameron set out in his manifesto to create a “programme which encourages young people and gives them a sense of purpose, optimism and belonging.” The ethos is set out with six main objectives aimed to encourage teamwork, communication, and independence in a social and challenging environment; and “above all, is going to help a generation of young people appreciate what they achieve, for themselves, and by themselves.”
NCS inspires young people to challenge themselves both physically and mentally through a variety of outdoor activities such as expeditions, wild camping, kayaking, and high rope activities. It allows them to increase their responsibility and independence through tasks such as budgeting, planning and organising, and cooking for a whole team; in addition to mixing with other team members, and socialising with new people in a new environment.
One of the main parts of NCS is to give something back to the community. Participants must undertake a social action project which encourages community engagement through volunteering, raising awareness or fundraising; all while reflecting on the experience to take their new honed skills into their future.
During the planning phase for the programme, Cameron anticipated something like National Service but without the military regime (hence the name), as “too many young people seem lost. Their lives lack shape or any kind of direction, so they take their frustrations out on the world around them.” But what the government did not anticipate while creating the programme is that the young people who take part are in fact already incredibly talented and intelligent people.
Young people get a lot of bad press, stereo-typically for being lazy, unenthusiastic and wasting opportunities offered to them. This stereotype continues into their early twenties as students. However, it is the young people of this country who are passionate and idealistic, they are talented and skilled, and NCS allows them to unlock their potential and enable them to demonstrate those skills, as well as learn new ones in the process.
The programme is truly remarkable to see the difference in participants from the beginning to the end, and to see them persevere with challenges no matter how big or small they may be. Participants are from all kinds of backgrounds regardless of medical issues and disabilities, poor or affluent, as well as different ethnic minorities. It challenges everyone in a different way; whether it is reaching the summit of a mountain on the expedition and wild camping in a remote place, conquering a fear of water, or even staying away from home for the first time. One of the main parts of NCS is social mixing which is about coming together as a team. Beginning on day one with a group of 11 other strangers, undertake physical outdoor challenges together, cook together, eat together, live together and by the end of three weeks, be carrying out a community project together.
Government funding for the programme is mandatory to “sow the seeds of the Big Society, and see them thrive in years to come” according to Cameron. The Big Society project has been welcomed across parties in the government, and by youth organisations to have a secure investment into the future of society. NCS is starting to take shape to transform a generation into the new society, with hope of setting the bar for engagement with teenagers and young people for generations to come.
However, with every government led scheme comes a host of problems.
In 2016, 93,000 people around the country took part which is an encouraging amount of people who have graduated with employability and life skills. The growth rate is a steady a 23 percent, with the aim of 360,000 participants by 2021 – which is a staggering number of young people to get through a programme each year.
This means the current larger waves of 72 people, broken down into teams of 12 with one member of staff will become teams of 20-30 people with hundreds of participants in any one place at a time.
But as teachers know very well, for every self-sufficient young person, is one who needs some extra support, and when the participant rate is growing so quickly, there are only so many 16 year-olds one member of staff can handle for 24 hours a day before problems start arising. One of those problems is spreading their time to thinly across each member of the group, and the people who need the most support slip through the net.
The government has invested £1.26 billion of funding from 2016-2021, however, there is also a target to reduce the cost per person by 29 percent to meet these funding requirements.
In my experience of working on NCS as a team leader, it is a very intense yet rewarding job. The intensity comes from two weeks of residentials in which one takes part in most of the activities to ensure each person fulfils the ethos, in addition to the responsibility for the pastoral care of each person. If the group was any bigger than 12, this role would be extremely difficult to manage, not to mention the social dynamic within the group would alter as groups tend to divide with more people.
At the end of the programme, I left with the desire to become a youth worker and be able to work with young people 1:1, as for some people there was so much more potential they could tap into with NCS just being the start of their future. With some extra support this could be achieved for certain individuals. I was not the only member of staff who felt this way at the end of the programme, and it felt almost like a waste of skills and resources for a young person to be so close to reaching their potential when the programme ends. Just like the feeling of having worked hard to master a particular skill, yet not knowing what to do with it afterwards.
The job satisfaction comes through the presentations towards the end of the programme to see these young people socialising with their new friends, discussing the things they achieved, and presenting their experience to the other NCS participants.
For most members of staff, it brings a tear to their eye to see the impact they have made on 12 young lives through the NCS programme. To see the instant development these young people have made: from starting the programme shy and reserved, and leaving joyful, taking away new skills and the confidence to be able to interact with people they meet for the first time in the future.
However, there isn’t the facility to work with these young people afterwards, unless one happens to be a youth worker in their school, sixth form or college. And, for some of these youngsters, they slip through the net and don’t receive the guidance they need. Which brings me to my conclusion that the government’s targets of having 360,000 participants per year by 2021 is an impractical and overstretched aim. Shepherding as many people to get through the programme as possible is the goal, but there are more favourable ways of doing so without compromising on the quality of the programme and the time spent between staff and young people.
Unfortunately, government schemes are a numbers game and more funding allocation includes the aim of more participants. However, as it is the case on many occasions, quality of over quantity should be considered, particularly on the basis on the education and success of the next generation.
In the same way that university degrees have become the norm, the idea is the skills and personal development learned on NCS should be the standard for generations to come. We should be teaching our youth to be confident, to be able to socially interact with one another, to be able to give something back to the local community, and to be independent and take responsibility for their own lives.
We want to set our standard for British youth to be high achievers which is a bold vision to have for the future, but one which is achievable through the right means and one which we should have already had in place.
However, the target of 360,000 participants by 2021 in this standard can be dangerous if not managed in the right way. Firstly, it not only sets the bar, but raises it in making it more difficult to stand out, and difficult for people to succeed through the programme with so many people taking part.
Secondly, to reach over 300,000 people by 2021 there needs to be a 40 percent increase in numbers. Currently, not every place on the course is being filled – of the 93,000 who took part last year, there were 124,000 places available. Although, there is a steady drop-out rate before the course has started, which is a disappointing waste of money.
And finally, for those numbers to be achieved, there still needs to be a 23 percent reduction in programme costs bringing the average number down to £1,319 per person. There needs to be a significant increase in staff to be able to coordinate such a programme, and more opportunities to secure the future for those few who fall through the net, and never quite reach their potential.
After implementation, our youth may not appear so “lost” as if their “lives lack shape or any sense of direction” according to Cameron, but he has hope:
“The young of this country are as passionate and idealistic as any generation before. Perhaps more passionate. They march against poverty, they set up online campaigns, they push their parents to recycle and they care deeply about climate change.”
I have been lucky enough to work with some young people who are inspired and motivated to do good in the world and take every opportunity given. After my time as an NCS team leader, I celebrate the achievement, and have high aspirations for the successes of these young people to come, and the standard they set for the next generation.