Sixteen-year-old Anthony Bloomfield, dressed in a grey T-shirt and black Umbro tracksuit bottoms, performs an impressive back-flip off a table made from a reclaimed wooden cable drum in a newly planted community garden in the Dings area of Bristol. He has every reason to be happy. After completing three weeks of National Citizen Service, a volunteering programme for 16- and 17-year-olds, Anthony says the experience has changed his life.
He looks far younger than his age, but, as he reveals, he has already faced the tougher aspects of growing up. He says: "If I wasn't on this course, I would be on the streets, causing trouble, ruining my life. But I got off my backside and joined this NCS course. If I wasn't doing this, I would probably have been getting arrested. I was bunking off school, getting into fights."
Anthony helped to lay the path of the community garden, made from woodchips donated by a local building firm, and painted a smiley face on a mural. Creating the garden was the final-week project for the 15 teenagers in this NCS team, who worked with the help of two youth organisations, Young Britain and Fixers. Anthony hopes that the NCS course will help boost his CV. "This has actually changed my life for the best."
This is the recurring theme among youngsters in Bristol who have just completed NCS: the capacity of new experiences, from rock-climbing to public speaking, to bring teenagers out of themselves, to give them confidence to interact with other people. At a time when bullies stalk teens on Facebook, there is a warmth that comes from these youngsters who are engaging with their peers face to face. It is striking to be among a group of young people who are not constantly looking at their phones. Social interaction takes the place of social media.
At a separate project, run by Engage4Life, another provider of NCS programmes, Kieran Brooks, 17, says three weeks ago he could barely speak in public. "I don't like talking to people normally," he says. But he has come out of his shell and grown in confidence. You cannot stop him talking, as he explains to Nick Hurd, the Cabinet Office minister responsible for NCS, how he has enjoyed the Bristol course.
Mr Hurd ran into trouble earlier this month for reportedly claiming that teenagers – particularly the very ones that those running the NCS are keen to have on board – lacked the "grit" to get jobs. Coming from an Old Etonian son of a former Foreign Secretary, it brought quite a backlash. Mr Hurd says he was "frankly very angry" that this was portrayed as his personal view, and that he was merely saying what employers were concerned about. The spirit and willingness of these teens to muck in and work hard seem to contradict what Jamie Oliver said last week about British youngsters being lazier than those from immigrant backgrounds. Mr Hurd is very careful not to criticise, or support, the chef's comments.
"All I would do is look at employers' surveys: The Federation of Small Businesses is saying it is not seeing young people coming through, [and surveys for] The Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development [saying businesses] seem to be less likely to recruit British young people and more inclined to recruit migrant workers. That is their decision. It just seems to reinforce the point we are making, that we are trying to help young people succeed and develop the kind of skills that employers say they are looking for."
The NCS was piloted in 2011 before being launched nationally last summer. It involves a two- or three-week course, costing the teenager £50, which can be funded through bursaries for the poorest. The cost to the taxpayer is about £1,000, but independent analysis claims the benefit to the economy will be 2.8 times the cost to the public purse.
Week one involves outward bound activity, and week two focuses on voluntary work. In total, half a million volunteering hours have been completed. But there remain concerns that it is making a difference. When the course was launched, the YMCA worried that funding for other youth groups was being cut. Mr Hurd says the Government is "obsessively" monitoring the backgrounds of people taking part in NCS, ensuring that it is not only middle-class children signing up. It seems David Cameron's Big Society is alive and well.