Something very odd indeed is going on. In the middle of the most severe cuts in living memory where youth service budgets are being decimated, the government has announced a massive, and very costly, expansion of an unevaluated programme that has yet to demonstrate that it works at all. And to make matters even more bizarre, there has been, up until now almost no outcry from the sector.
I am talking about the National Citizen Service (NCS), and the fact that the PM has just announced that it will be increased by 900% up to 2014.
Let’s look at a few facts:
- This year was the pilot, and an evaluation has yet to be published. It is very poor practice at any level for a programme to be expanded before an evaluation is done, let alone a major national programme.
- It is very expensive – costed at £1,182 per person (I do not know if this is based on the anticipated cohort of over 11,000 or the actual of 8500). By contrast the scouts reportedly cost £600 for an entire year and Germany can apparently provide a full year-long volunteering programme for £1,228. I do not see how this 6-week programme remotely provides value for money.
- The stated plan is to increase from 11,000 places this year to 90,000 places in 2014.
- This year an astonishing 23% of places were not filled. This is either a serious indictment of the engagement for the programme or a reflection on a poorly designed programme (or both). Either way it does not bode well for an expansion and ought to set alarm bells ringing.
- The Prince’s Trust, who were a delivery provider this year for the pilot, did not even bid for the programme delivery in 2012, which is noteworthy.
- The government has recently failed to provide information in the required timescale from a Freedom of Information request from Third Sector magazine for the social and economic background data of the participants on the pilots.
- In a report published in June 2011 the parliamentary education select committee said it “cannot support” the programme. They argued that if 50% of 16year olds were to participate it would cost over £350 million – this is more than the entire amount spent on the youth service by Local Authorities in 2009-10.
- Figures from the Challenge Network (the largest provider this year) do not seem to add up. The government has said that 18% came from “low income families” whereas the BBC had the same organisation stating that 79.9% receive free school meals. One of these stats must be correct, but I cannot see how they both are possible.
- 5% of places on the NCS with the Challenge Network were taken by young people who are in private schools. This is an astonishing waste of public money on those who are least in need of it.
Personally I have not seen any accounts of any of the “youth led” community projects that were supposed to have happened. If 8,500 young people were delivering imaginative and constructive community projects why has this not been reported in the media? Particularly given the riots this summer, the positive community building activities ought to have been much more noticeable and widely reported (think of the reporting on riot cleanup).
I could go on, but I am not a journalist, and nor am I out to get the government. I think it is absolutely fantastic that the government is wanting to commit such substantial sums to youth development. But I think they are being poorly advised and that these funds can be much more effectively invested.
There are innumerable well established youth programmes, youth centres and other projects (with demonstrated results) that are currently either on the edge of collapse or seriously scaling back that I would argue ought to be funded instead of this programme.
In this time of budget constraints, what we need is intelligent commissioning of programmes that provide the best value for impact; a need made more urgent of course by the riots.
Our national portfolio of youth initiatives ought to be diverse, and scaled to fit with individual need and impact desired, where those that need (and deserve) more support and training, get more; those that really don’t need it or need less, get less or even don’t get it at all. We ought to have a wide diversity of types of initiatives and programmes rather than investing such a substantial percentage of the national youth budget on one cookie-cutter style scheme. These are not radical suggestions – they are common sense.
My hope is that there will be full disclosure and independent scrutiny of all the data surrounding this programme and a healthy debate, led by the sector, as to whether the NCS is the best and most effective way to use these funds to achieve the aims. The following is the data I would like to see:
1. Full demographic breakdown by location for the pilot
2. A complete list of all the community activities undertaken broken down by location and cohort
3. A full list of all the community activities that were initially planned and committed to by the groups broken down by location and cohort, ie what did the young people say they would do as compared to what they actually did.
4. Full breakdown on participation numbers, down to numbers per phase of the programme and per session, broken down ideally by location, demographics and cohort
5. Full costs breakdown (including hidden costs and cross subsidies). I think the DCLG £500 line would be a good benchmark to follow.
6. Results from interviews of those who did not complete the programme as to why they said they dropped out
7. A comparison with the costs of other youth engagement and empowerment programmes and an assessment of impact comparison.
8. Full disclosure of the individual contract details with providers, including fees and targets, in order that value for money can be compared.
9. The evidence base from consultation with young people that they think this programme would be the best way to invest the money in training and support for young people to secure the outcomes desired.
On the one hand, as a youth professional I am deeply distressed by the ill thought out funding of this particular programme. On the other hand, I am thrilled by the prospect that if enough of us in the sector let our views be known we can shape the direction of this pot of gold for young people, into programmes that really will make a difference.
We could be putting it into programmes for (amongst others) employment and skills, empowerment, rehabilitation of offenders and restorative justice, and a variety of early intervention projects. The funding from this one scheme could go some way to replacing the money lost to youth provision from the cuts. This is truly exciting and a glimmer of good news in amongst the tide of economic disaster and challenge in the youth and community sector. In order to make this happen, the sector will need to speak – loud and clear.
So my request to fellow professionals and youth and community organisations is to state your views, so that we can have a constructive national debate on the issue. And my request to government is to pause and take stock, and to then take on board the views of a wider range of people on how best to engage and inspire the nations young people. A monumental error is in the making and we will all be responsible if we allow this to happen on the quiet.
By Jonny Zander