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Is the National Citizen Service worth the investment?

The latest independent evaluation of the government-backed National Citizen Service, which is delivered by a range of organisations including many charities, is a seminar in positivity.

The findings from researchers at Ipsos Mori reveal a highly popular youth scheme – no less than 97 per cent of participants who took part in 2013 would recommend the programme. It also shows the programme helped young people to improve a range of skills.

Given that each of the 40,000 places cost the public purse around £1,600, it is good to hear that the young people had a good time and felt that they learned something new. But equally it leaves one to wonder how the young people would have responded if asked the question “would you have preferred to have £1,600 paid into your bank account rather than attend the NCS scheme?”

The latest study does little to address the broader question of what it is so unique about the programme that it justified £62m of Cabinet Office funding in 2013. The study, for example, leaves us none the wiser about whether young people who have been through the programme actually go on to volunteer more than their peers, rather than just say they will. Sadly, because the study only researches those who have recently completed the programme, these bigger questions remain unanswered.

The researchers say in the report that a longitudinal study will be undertaken to determine the longer term impact on those who took part in 2013. But given that 2013 was the third year that the programme had been funded by central government, it begs the question why the latest evaluation did not include a report looking back at the long-term impact on those who took part in 2011 and 2012? A previous Cabinet Office-funded study conducted by NatCen into the 2011 and 2012 pilot programmes did start a longitudinal study, which found, significantly, that while the NCS scheme had led to improvements after a year, some of these appeared to be short term. It also concluded that taking part in NCS made little difference to the amount of time they volunteered.

A spokeswoman for the Cabinet Office tells me in a statement that the previous longitudinal study was not continued because “follow-ups with small data sets and control groups become more difficult over time due to the fact that people drop out of the sample group”.

She says that the latest evaluation deals with perceptions of the programme and its impact, and will include a long-term study. “This approach rates highly against the Nesta Standards of Evidence,” she says.

This year’s study also shows that almost 40,000 young people went through the programme in 2013, but there is no mention of the fact that the government had initially said it hoped that around 50,000 would take part or which parts of the country struggled to fill their places – omissions that seem to imply that there was little place for negativity in the study.

On this point, the Cabinet Office spokeswoman says that the latest evaluation “is not designed to test overall NCS performance against targets”.

The current government wants 90,000 young people to take part in NCS in 2014. Based on this year’s placement costs, it would cost the Cabinet Office in the region of £144m, although theoretically the scheme might be pulled if there’s a change of government.

No doubt the NCS programme provides a huge amount of value and makes a lasting difference to some participants, but it’s difficult to conclude that from the latest evaluation.

It will be interesting to see which of the political parties believe it warrants the levels of investment currently promised, given the evidence.

  • We would suggest the NCS continues because society needs activities that engage young people in our sector particularly as our sector is not known by young people and not particularly well taught in schools. Young people have been accessing our website http://www.useyourcommunity.com looking for local activities so on balance we would feel it is better to improve the NCS to make it better for all concerned.

    • Michael Grimes

      Lots of work like this IS happening successfully in schools (an important stage before NCS) but we rarely hear about it. For example, the Citizenship Foundation’s Giving Nation programme worked with 76,000 young people in 2012 (who gave up 356,000 hours of their free time) – almost three times the number that took part in NCS that year.

      Giving Nation cost £5.18 per participant in that year compared to £1,553 per participant for NCS. Using the same method to calculate return on investment (the minimum wage for that age-group in that period), Giving Nation’s ROI was 232% (a positive contribution to the economy) while NCS’s was -96%.

      These figures don’t include the development costs. NCS cost over £25m to set up; Giving Nation cost nothing extra, because it used an existing infrastructure (ie schools).

      The point here is not to undermine the importance of NCS: we believe it is an invaluable supplement to good citizenship education. Rather, it is to ask if it would be wiser to share the sparse public money more strategically among programmes that have already proved they can deliver, rather than bet the bulk of it on what might appear a pet government project.

  • Anon

    I have worked at an NCS provider for over a year, and ran its summer program three years running.

    It is profoundly patronising to infer that young people volunteering in their communities is a new idea, hatched by NCS, which therefore requires £62m. Young people have been volunteering for decades, in a multitude of ways. Furthermore, NCS is unable to target and help the most “hard-to-reach” young people, who need “integrating” (to use NCS terminology), more than the upwardly mobile young people who generally participate in the programme.

    • Michael Grimes

      No-one’s suggesting it’s a new idea or ignoring the work young people do already; quite the reverse, in fact: we’re saying that maybe some of the money would be better spent on recognising and supporting that work.

  • martin

    The NCS program falls far short of what is needed to engage young people. For a start and more significantly, many of the team leaders that are employed to look after these young people are not qualified to a satisfactory standard, being unable to work with emotional development of young people. Additionally, the program only focuses on 16 -18 year olds and, whilst so much money is being plied in to this project, youth clubs are having to shut their doors due to financial cuts, youth work focused on a wider age range and developed young people from 12 or 13 years plus. I personally struggle to see the benefits, staff can see very little of the money whilst those companies that offer the NCS program retain the largest cut of the finances. In conclusion, the NCS should be scrapped and the money should be distributed to each district to improve youth centres!!