Scheme that aims to reinvent national service for the modern world

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The Independent Online

A community "people's hall" in North Tyneside, once well-known during the miners' strike, is perhaps an unlikely place to witness the reality of a Tory Prime Minister's grand social experiment.

But while they don't know it, the 15 teenagers cutting vegetables, frying chicken and making flowers out of melon slices are David Cameron's big hope of a lasting political legacy.

In a few hours' time they will have to "plate-up" and serve 70 local worthies a three-course dinner.

So how do a bunch 16-year-olds end up during their summer holidays slaving in front of a hot stove at Wallsend People's Centre for a Tory political dream? The answer is National Citizen's Service: Mr Cameron's idea to reinvent the old compulsory military service for a modern world.

First launched last year, this summer 30,000 post-GCSE students are taking part in a three-week programme designed to teach them new skills, get used to working with people they've never met before and reconnect with their communities. So far our group has spent two weeks living away from home, initially on an outdoor course with activities such as rock climbing, rafting and trekking and then a week spent in self-catering accommodation, designing and implementing a volunteering project in their community.

When we meet, the group is putting its plans into action, not only by cooking but also by organising a night outside sleeping rough to raise money for a local homeless shelter. What is striking is that they are not really the typical middle-class teenagers you would expect to be pushed by their parents into such a scheme.

For example, while one girl, Lauren, is about to go on to 'A' Levels, working next to her is Nathan who is officially homeless having been kicked out of home earlier this summer after a family breakdown. "At first it was hard because I didn't know what to expect," Nathan said. "Now we're all mates and doing everything together. It's been fantastic."

They are a long way removed from the minister in charge of National Citizen's Service, Nick Hurd, who is with us on the visit. The son of the former Cabinet minister Douglas, Mr Hurd is, like Mr Cameron, another old Etonian/Oxford/Bullingdon Club Tory. As Minister for the Big Society he has the job of rolling out NCS and defending it against allegations that at £1,300 per student, it is a luxury political vanity project.

His defence is that NCS is about much more than giving bored teenagers something worthy to do during the summer break. "The challenge is, can we do a voluntary version of national service" he says "which isn't military but does throw young people together from very different backgrounds, pushes them through a common experience which tests and challenges them and helps them build skills?"

He adds: "If you worry about social cohesion, which we should, and worry a bit about society failings then programmes like this offers a chance to understand people from different races, different religions and backgrounds."

The other benefits are to employers and the voluntary sector. "The skills they are developing in terms of confidence, teamwork, working with others makes them more employable."

All very worthy. But what do the teenagers think? The Government's research suggests that the scheme has almost no drop-out rate and 95 per cent would recommend it to friends and family. And that appears to be the case with our group.

They might balk if they knew they were being such enthusiastic proponents of David Cameron's Big Society but not one had a bad word to say about the programme. "It was tough to start with because none of us knew each other," said Lauren. "But honestly we're like a family now - we go out together at weekends."

Nathan says he now wants to become a chef.

NCS still faces formidable obstacles, but it is hard not to be impressed by the early results. If this is the Big Society in action, it may not be such a nebulous idea after all.

If the Government gets its way, by 2014 nearly one in six teenagers will be taking part in the NCS programme – with the eventual aim of offering it to every 16-year-old in the country.