The Tories' citizen service needs a reality check
Tuesday, October 7, 2008
"In my view, this is something so important for the future of our society ... we cannot afford not to make it work."
Those were the words of Conservative leader David Cameron when he unveiled the party's National Citizen Service (NCS) a year ago. Make no mistake: this is one of the Tory's flagship policies for young people and is likely to be a key plank of its election manifesto.
NCS would bring together 16-year-olds from all social backgrounds over a six-week period in the summer. Its aim would be to advance personal development, smoothing young people's transition to adulthood. The social mixing and active engagement of teenagers would result in stronger, more cohesive communities. So far, so good.
But at a debate hosted at the Conservative conference by CYP Now last week, it was clear NCS has much work to do to convince the youth sector of its credibility and viability (see news, p1). The concerns are twofold: how will it be resourced and what happens after the six weeks are up?
The Conservatives, were they to be elected, say the voluntary scheme will be phased in gradually and want it to be embraced eventually by all 16-year-olds. That's a cohort of around three-quarters of a million. There are simply not enough youth workers in the country to do this, leaving aside the question of what happens to their existing work. After a few years, the party says former participants will return to mentor new intakes - but that cannot be relied upon. There is a real danger the scheme would deplete the resources of the youth workforce during the summer. And the party has not yet declared how much NCS will cost. Until they do there is a danger the scheme will suck money away from good ongoing work. Even the question of who takes overall responsibility for the initiative is yet to be determined.
At the end of the programme, 16-year-olds will have passing out ceremonies to celebrate their completion. But, as Sarah Lindsell from the Duke of Edinburgh's Award, puts it: "You can't microwave a rite of passage." Young people do not seal their self-development in six weeks.
The Tories have produced a 137-page internal report and have seven working groups on NCS. But there needs to be a lot more consultation with the youth sector. Otherwise, should it ever be implemented, the Conservatives' flagship youth policy could fast become a socially and economically expensive gimmick.