The teenagers who may yet bring the Big Society to life
Can Cameron's grand plan really work? Oliver Wright meets the 16-year-olds taking on their 'National Citizen Service'
A community 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 (and might object if they did) the 15 Geordie teenagers frenetically 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 serve over 70 local worthies a three-course dinner. Most of the teenagers cheerfully admit cooking is not their forte and that even a microwave can be a challenge. This is a potential kitchen nightmare of the kind Gordon Ramsay could only dream of.
So how do a bunch 16-year-olds end up on a sunny Wednesday afternoon 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 Service (NCS): Mr Cameron's idea to reinvent the old compulsory military service for a modern world.
It was first launched last year, and 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. If the Government gets its way, by 2014 nearly one in six teenagers will be taking part in the programme – with the eventual aim of offering it to every 16-year-old in the country.
So far our group has spent two weeks living away from home (many for the first time), initially on an outdoor course with activities like rock climbing, rafting and trekking and then spending a week in self-catering accommodation designing and implementing a volunteering project.
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 the group is not composed of the 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 study chemistry, biology and maths at a A-level, while working next to her is Nathan who is officially homeless – one of two such children in the group of 15 – having been kicked out of home after a family breakdown. It was his case worker, after he was placed in emergency accommodation, who suggested he get involved in the programme.
"It first it was hard because I didn't know what to expect," Nathan said. "I was really nervous for the first day. Now we're all mates and doing everything together. It has been fantastic."
Another girl, Stacey, is going to study childcare after the summer, while others really don't know what they're going to do next with their lives. They've not been privately educated and, asked what they would be doing if they weren't on the programme, reply: "Watching Jeremy Kyle on telly".
They are a long way removed from the minister in charge of NCS, 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 from both the left and the right that, at £1,300 per student, it is a vanity project which has no place in a time of economic hardship. His defence is that NCS is about much more than giving a bunch of bored teenagers something worthy to do during the summer break.
"David Cameron made the point that we're not very good as a country at helping young people make the transition from childhood to adulthood," he says. "The challenge is, can we do a voluntary version of national service – which isn't military but throws young people together from very different backgrounds, pushes them through a common experience which tests and challenges them and helps them build skills which will be valuable to them?
"We really need to give them a chance to meet people and make friends with people they would not otherwise have a chance to do.
"If you worry about social cohesion, which we should, then programmes like this – which pull people together at a very impressionable age, give them a chance to understand people from different races, religions and backgrounds – are very important."
The other advantages of the scheme which Mr Hurd highlights are the benefits to employers and the voluntary sector. "The skills they are developing in terms of confidence, teamwork, presentation, working with other people, make them more employable."
He adds: "These young people are being exposed through the programme to issues and organisations which are trying to tackle those issues and we hope it may inspire them to think about what role they might be able to play in doing something about it. These are the volunteers of the future."
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 of those questioned afterwards would recommend it to friends and family. And that certainly appears to be the case with our group.
They might baulk 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 we're like a family now – we go out together at weekends even when we don't have to be here."
Nathan, who said he previously had no idea what he wanted to do after leaving school, says he now wants to become a chef. "Lee (the Gordon Ramsay figure supervising tonight's meal) says he'll take me on as an apprentice. I'm really chuffed."
Laura says she had barely left the house apart from to go to school over the last few years – and the scheme had opened up a new world to her. "I didn't know there were all these things to do around here, youth groups and such," she says. "Nobody ever tells you about them in school."
This last point is one that is echoed by Robin Fry, who works for the voluntary organisation Voda which is running the North Tyneside project. He said what had surprised him was how isolated the children were from what was going on around them. "Schools are very good at promoting school activities but less good at promoting what's on offer outside," he says. "You keep hearing the teenagers say 'We didn't even know that existed'. For example there is a recording studio which is open to young people to use but no one had heard of it.
"Hopefully one of the legacies of this is that it will open the young people up to the kind of things that they can get involved in. I'd also like to hope that in turn some of them will become volunteers – maybe helping to run the project next year."
NCS still faces formidable obstacles. It is expensive; finding 30,000 motivated teenagers to take part will be easier than the 90,000 in 2014, and getting infrastructure right to develop the programme on a larger scale will become increasingly difficult. On an individual level, it remains to be seen how lasting the impact of this scheme is on the lives of Lauren, Nathan and the rest.
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.
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