Nick Hurd is right to say that there are plenty of unknowns about this year’s National Citizen Service. Last year’s scheme could be filed as a cautious success – it gave 8,000 young people the chance to engage in the three week programme and there is plenty of anecdotal evidence to suggest that young people and their communities got some enjoyment from the scheme. There is much to support in the aspirations of the scheme; the idea of getting 30,000 young people involved in their communities in a positive way and building their personal skills is unlikely to raise much serious opposition!
However, as I told Chris Wimpress as part of the Huffington Post’s analysis of the NCS, the persistent question remains whether or not the scheme provides value for money. If the Government was to roll the plan out nationally for all youngsters, the scheme would cost £355 million a year, more than the Government currently spends in total on youth services. Indeed, last year Parliament recommended reducing the plan to a gold standard mark for existing voluntary schemes as a way of keeping the operating title, but reducing the cost significantly. This could then support the promotion of existing local volunteering schemes, removing some of the duplication of work currently made by the NCS.
It is this cost question that is crucial to the future of the NCS. The 2011 pilot cost £1,182 per participant to run, in the same year German authorities spent £46 more per head than this on year long apprenticeship schemes. Whilst this programme may have some strong short term benefits, these resources could surely be better directed elsewhere? In a time where graduate unemployment remains stratospherically high, with 25% of last year’s cohort still unemployed, it must be time to direct this money into schemes that can have a practical benefit for potential employers and employees now. The Government has made much of its commitment to NEET young people that have recently left school, and their peers have other courses to pursue. For unemployed graduates however, since the cessation of the New Deal, there is little in the way of stimulating training. Diverting these resources into a comprehensive programme for young people with nothing to do now, rather than the worries of a long summer holiday, would be immediately productive and would be a much better use of significant resources in a challenging climate.
The cost question is also a barrier to attracting private sector investment. The NCS offer should play strongly to CSR strategies – young people, education, life-skills, employment-skills, disadvantaged areas, community. However, there seems to be no creative thinking that’s been done to draw up attractive and innovative packages which when linked to partnership with Central Government, would make for a compelling case. It might be uncertainty about the scheme’s future that is intrinsic to this problem and a vicious circle – comparatively high costs, and low certainty about long-term social impact doesn’t bode well for the private sector investment that could make the difference in developing the scheme’s long-term future. It is essential that NCS now demonstrates a bold, cost-effective and creative approach now, combined with addressing key issues surrounding support long-term for unemployed graduates and NEET young people – this is the key to unlocking the private sector investment that will form an effective and sustainable matched fund.