More than 120,000 teenagers will be able to take part in the new National Citizen's Service (NCS) programme over the next two years, ministers said yesterday as they unveiled the first results of a pilot scheme.
The Government has pledged to spend almost £1,300 for each 16-year-old involved in the flagship "Big Society" programme this summer and next. It will pay for them to spend up to two weeks living away from home – first on an outdoor course taking part in activities such as rock-climbing, rafting or trekking, then a week living independently in self-catering accommodation, designing and implementing a volunteering project in their community.
The third week is spent back at home putting their project into action. Despite the £156m price tag, ministers said that evidence showed the scheme was "transformative". They said they hoped to make it available to all 600,000 16-years-olds eventually as a "rite of passage" after GCSEs.
However, critics suggested that the costs were unjustified at a time of cutbacks in other parts of the public sector. The Education Select Committee has questioned why the NCS costs £1,300 per placement when Germany spends £1,228 per person on a whole year's work-based volunteer scheme.
But the minister responsible for the programme, Nick Hurd, said he believed it offered value for money. He pointed to an evaluation study which found that of the 10,000 16-year-olds who had taken part so far, 93 per cent said they would definitely recommend it to their friends, while 85 per cent said that the scheme had made them feel more positive towards people from different backgrounds. More than 200,000 hours of volunteering work were completed with a drop-out rate over the three weeks of less than 5 per cent. Ministers suggested the research showed that every £1 spent on the project brought up to £2 of value to society.
One participant, Carl Young, from Leyton in east London, said he was not enthusiastic at first – but had been converted. "I wasn't that enamoured by it but I did it and it changed my life really. In my group we did coaching for kids in a sports centre teaching basic football skills," he said. "Since then I've volunteered every Saturday to help teach kids – and I've been offered a job. It's helped me to gain a lot of confidence. It's a great thing really."
Stephen Twigg, the shadow Education Secretary, said he did not underestimate the effect such a scheme had on teenagers who took part. But he expressed reservations about whether it was value for money. "There is concern that a scheme that helps a relatively small number of teenagers is a bit of a sticking plaster, when the Government is cutting £100m from youth services," he said.