Centre of youth hope
Tuesday, October 1, 2013
Laura McCardle goes to meet Nick Hurd, minister for civil society.
History was made earlier this year when the government transferred responsibility for youth policy out of the education portfolio for the first time since World War Two.
The move to the Cabinet Office caused concern to some in the sector, who felt it would undermine youth work's traditional links with education.
But civil society minister Nick Hurd, who now oversees youth policy, is keen to point out why the decision was made. "We sit within government - at the centre of it - and can do a more effective job co-ordinating what is going on across Whitehall," he explains, as we speak in his office at the Cabinet Office.
"It seemed very logical. We can offer a more co-ordinated approach, a more concentrated effort to identify gaps - if gaps exist - and some fresh energy into how we make young people have a voice, transforming their opportunities to develop the skills that are going to be really important in how they do at school and succeed in work life."
Hurd's rationale that his department's status within government makes it the natural home for youth policy is all well and good, but does he have any concrete evidence to prove that it is up to the job? The answer, according to him of course, is yes.
He credits the "fantastic success" of the National Citizen Service (NCS), the government's flagship youth volunteering programme for 16- and 17-year-olds, for convincing ministers that it was right to move the youth portfolio.
"We have deliberately set out to be very ambitious," he says of the Conservative Party's aims for the NCS. "We did quite a lot of practical homework when we were in opposition, and came into power feeling confident that we had a good offer for young people," says Hurd.
Explaining how NCS was brought to life, the minister cites a comment made by the Prime Minister when he was elected leader of the Conservative Party in 2005.
"David Cameron said: 'I don't think that we as a country do a good enough job helping young people make the transition to adulthood', so he issued a kind of challenge to the voluntary sector and us - can we work together to construct a service that brings people together from different backgrounds?"
Hurd's pride and passion for the NCS shines through as he speaks enthusiastically about the "challenging programme" he helped launch in 2010, which has earned positive feedback from the "tough crowd" of young people it targets.
"It is probably the most ambitious personal development programme that any government has had," he says. "It's growing extremely fast and young people love it. We are very excited about what we believe it can do in terms of changing how young people talk about themselves. Every year I go to different parts of the country to see how they feel about it. Now they are saying, 'my friend told me to go on it', and that's massive for us.
"NCS is the most exciting thing I have worked on professionally - we are really proud of it," he says.
In July, an independent report compiled by NatCen Social Research found that nine out of 10 participants believed NCS had given them the opportunity to develop skills that will help them in the future.
The report also revealed that three-quarters of the young people who took part in NCS in 2012 felt more confident about gaining employment after being involved in the programme, an outcome that Hurd is keen to realise - and a priority, he says, for the government.
"I am conscious that young people are growing up in an infinitely more complex and challenging world than the one I grew up in, so I think that as a society we have to do everything we can to help them succeed," he explains.
"There are lots of challenges, such as the job market. It is improving, but there is concern about how ready people are for the world of work. That's a big responsibility for us all, not just government.
"There is a vast amount of effort to ensure that all the pathways into work are easier to navigate, and a huge review of all the projects to help young people into education and training, and to make it simpler," he adds.
While Hurd is patently proud of what NCS has achieved, day-to-day management of the programme was outsourced last year to the NCS Trust.
Last month, Stephen Greene, chairman of the NCS Trust, insisted that the government will not hold "special powers" over it when the transition to full independence is completed this autumn, despite having an as-yet unnamed, government-appointed civil servant on the board.
Hurd backs up Greene's view by saying that the independence of NCS is fundamental to its future success. "To reach its full potential and really be part of the DNA that the next stage needs, it needs to be more independent. This requires a better range of conversations with the private sector and other sectors - it's all about cross-party and cross-sector involvement. It's a huge step for us," he says.
Placing the NCS in Greene's "fabulous hands" will, says Hurd, allow the Cabinet Office to invest more attention on the youth portfolio, something it deserves and possibly lacked while under the DfE's stewardship, which he says was "quite rightly obsessed" with school performance and qualifications.
Hurd's enthusiastic tone becomes more measured when he turns to the government's other priorities for youth policy. In addition to equipping young people with skills to help them thrive in employment, he says the Cabinet Office is keen to encourage more young people to take an interest in public life, and voting in particular.
"Another area (of focus) is how we help young people have a voice and engage, so that getting involved is worthwhile. We should be very conscious that the population is getting older fast, and we shouldn't let our parties be chosen by older people," he explains.
The minister says he is also keen to work with local authorities to help them think more creatively about the range of youth services they can provide, amid severe cuts in many areas of the country. Hurd says the Cabinet Office believes it can do a lot to help local authorities fulfil their statutory duty to secure young people's services. But he cannot explain exactly how it will help achieve this.
Positive for Youth, the cross-government strategy for young people aged 13 to 19 years old, will be built on, Hurd says, without "reproducing past processes".
What this means is unclear, and might not allay fears held by some in the sector that Positive for Youth, developed by the former minister Tim Loughton at the DfE, does not register highly on the government's list of priorities.
Loughton also initiated a nine-government-department Youth Action Group to join up thinking and "youth-proof" policy. "I've sat in a couple of these meetings," Hurd says.
"I think they are useful but they could be a lot better, so I'm looking to breathe some fresh energy into them."
Time after time, Hurd somehow manages to bring questions on all the key issues back to the NCS. "I expect it to grow - we have set ambitious growth targets. I expect more young people to hear about it and get drawn to it because there is a buzz around it now," he says.
"After years of decline, volunteering has increased and that matters a lot in this society - 2012 was a big year of change in the way that young people viewed volunteering, thanks to the Olympics. I hope it will inspire more of them to think about volunteering and leaving their mark on the community."
Hurd reiterates the Cabinet Office's "great track record for getting things done" as evidence that the future of youth policy is in safe hands.
"It all starts from the same place - how we help young people in a complex, challenging world."
NICK HURD CV
- Hurd attended Eton College and Oxford University
- Before becoming a politician he developed a business career, giving him experience of running his own company and representing a British bank in Brazil
- Hurd is the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner in London
- He is the fourth successive generation of his family to serve as a Conservative MP. His father Douglas Hurd, now Lord Hurd of Westwell, was Foreign Secretary from 1989 to 1995, his grandfather Baron Anthony Hurd was MP for Newbury and his great grandfather, Sir Percy Hurd, was MP for Devizes.