National Citizen Service (NCS): 3 Things You Probably Didn’t Know

Cameron’s £1 Billion bonanza

In January 2016, Cameron announced the intention to spend over £1 billion pound in expanding the NCS youth volunteering scheme, stating that ‘by 2021, NCS will cover 60% of all 16 year olds’ which equates to approximately 900,000 participants. In making the announcement he emphasised that the ‘NCS is becoming a rite of passage for teenagers all over Britain, helping them mix with people from different backgrounds and learn to work together …. showing young people the power of public service, and not just self-service’. [1]

So what is so wrong with the NCS?

This nationwide citizenship programme poses a serious threat to youth work practice and young people’s citizenship. We are living in a time of severe austerity cuts; and over the last 5 years the impact on youth services has been massive. It is estimated for 2010/11 these resulted in an average cut of 25% in youth provision, and most dramatically Sutton Borough Council making cuts in the region of 54.7%. [2] Similar financial impacts are being replicated in the voluntary and community youth sector, and it is estimated cuts in public funding for charities could amount to around £1.7 billion by 2017/18, which is equivalent to a 12% reduction, [3] something which stands as stark contrast to the proposed £1 billion investment in the expansion of the NCS up to 2020.

Life under the Austerity Youth Policy

We are witnessing a major shift in youth policy in England; which can be categorised as a form of austerity youth policy, characterised by the process of ‘marketisation and privatisation’ and a neo-liberal project that has ‘significantly compromised the character and stability of open-access youth work’. [4] Moreover, these drastic cuts in local authority youth work have been described as the ‘disappearing service’; and research indicates there have been cuts in the region of £60 million between 2012 and 2014. [5] These spending cuts have had a dramatic effect on frontline services leading to a reduction in the number of full time professional posts with more than 2000 posts (700 full time aDavid_Cameron_with_Bear_Grills_on_NCSnd 1300 part- time) disappearing, resulting in the closure of 350 youth centres, and over 35,000 hours of outreach work. Most alarming is that we haven’t reached to end of austerity and service reduction, as the future predicted spending cuts will continue into the new parliament the reality of a ‘disappearing service’ is within touching distance.

The policy backdrop to the government cuts in public services can be located within Cameron’s ‘big society’ rhetoric, which has led to a new era for youth work which is based on a positive youth development (a form of rekindled adolescence theory) and ‘youth at-risk’ focused solutions. [6] The government’s dominant ideology is now a widely, and unquestioningly, taken-for-granted assumption about public services which suggest that ‘the state needs to be removed from public service provision as comprehensively and as quickly as possible’. [7]

The 3 things we need to worry about ….

1.The NCS is designed as a model for neo-liberal approaches to youth provision to take hold in our communities. The NCS places a strong emphasis on an ‘invest-to-save’ approach to youth spending, i.e. we can only invest if we get a return on the spending. This means that the economic benefits become more important than young people social rights or entitlement to unncs logoiversal services. It is argued that the economic benefit accruing from youth social action, such as the NCS will outstrip the costs of such programme – therefore justifying social investment on the grounds of financial terms – recent US research on the economic value of the AmeriCorps (the NCS was modelled on this programme) and state that in the long term the US tax payer ‘recoups $2.5 billion in lower social welfare spending and higher productivity’, [8] a net saving of $2 for every $1 spent.  So what I am suggesting here is that we are in danger of conceding the argument on young people’s rights and entitlement to social provision by adopting market logics and rationalisation to service delivery.  Interestingly, the NCS evaluation uses similar cost-benefit assumptions to argue that the economic benefit was clear, for whilst the expenditure on the 2012 Summer NCS programme amounted to £36.8 million, they estimate there would be a long term net contribution to government of £22.7 – £42.2 million, suggesting a return on investment of between £1.50 and £2.80 for every £1 spent.[9] However, such financial projections are dubious, even NatCen state that such calculation and long term economic benefits are unfounded precisely because they seek to predict future behaviour in terms of careers and educational outcomes, and conclude that ‘these estimates are subject to high levels of uncertainty’[10], adding that the academic and economic models used in the calculations do not match perfectly with the NCS evaluation data.

2.The march of the private sector into traditionally public spaces and services. It has been suggested that around 90% of the ‘big society’ contracts allocated by the Coalition government went to private companies, more specifically around ‘£4 billion of outsourced public sector contracts are with just four private companies; Atos, Capita, G4S and Serco’, [11] which suggests we are witnessing neoliberal policies in action; as a new sort of civic monopoly of social entrepreneurs starts delivering public services. But what kind of companies are these? A brief look at the recent headlines indicates concerns should be raised, for instance there have been concerns raised about degraded and humiliating treatment of hospital patients, reports of death in custody and repayments of public funds. [12] Similarly, concerns have been raised about private service providers placing Refugee and Asylum children and families in dangers through their housing policies. [13]

The NCS commissioning is now another example of the march of private companies delivering youth services. Interestingly, one of these civic monopolies Serco, was part of the largest consortium of NCS providers until 2015. The newly commissioned providers of the NCS have come with a queseetec wp logo protestst to win the hearts and minds of young people, offering to deliver a citizenship service based on getting young people ready for the world of work. For example, Seetec, a company that aims to empower people ‘to gain the skills and attributes to secure and sustain employment’, and boasts it is the ‘UK’s largest and most experienced’ provider of the government funded Welfare to Work scheme’. [14]Another successful NCS bidder in the 2015 commissioning round is Ingeus which currently operates the government’s Work Programme,  offering individually tailored employability services and a citizenship vision that is ‘founded on the core belief that work is good for the individual, good for the economy and good for society’. [15] But unfortunately, the most recent round of commissioning for NCS contracts for the period 2017-21 have seen another well recognised national organisation, UK Youth, being out muscled and choosing to withdraw from NCS bidding process. 

3. It changing the way we work and support young people

Research indicates that the austerity cuts and refashioning of youth provision through commissioning has resulted changes to the type of youth work being delivered and it can be argued that  the current political and economic climate has nurtured a form of youth work practice which ‘impocameron-ncs-1024x744ses constraints and raises contradictions; complicating the delivery of services, at the same time as diminishing the rewards of inspired practice at all levels’. [16]   It has been suggested that the current national youth policy across England has led to prescribed targets and outcomes are that are ‘closing off opportunities for progressive ways of working with young people’. [17]   It means we are seeing more a contemporary framework for practice which is associated with the idea of positive youth development. [18] This type of youth work is based on life-course sociology, developmental psychology and evolutionary biology as a form of practice pre-occupied with transitions into adulthood and designed to ensure that youth are both prepared with the necessary personal and social assets intended to ensure successful transitions into adulthood. It has also been argued that the NCS is not such much about citizenship as ensuring that young people become ‘work-ready’. [19] Wherefore the newly commissioned providers will boost this approach, so much so that contributing towards ‘CV-building’ are the now the key parameters of the NCS citizenship programme based on a ‘normative ideal of social justice that emphasizes individual agency and the conditionality of welfare provision’ and as such the social rights of citizenship are contingent upon achieving successful transitions into paid work.

Concluding thoughts …

The NCS appears on the surface has a great opportunity for school leavers to do something good for their communities. It also supposed to be about learning new skills and meeting new people. However, the evaluation of the programmes suggests it’s not really succeeding with these goals. It is becoming the only show in town, attracting £1 billion to expand, largely collected by new private youth providers, offering employability skills and work-readiness approaches to citizenship. It suggests youth citizenship is not about empowerment, critical thinking or participation in democracy, instead it is based on neoliberal values – a sort of economic imperative of citizenship – witnessed by the shift towards employability and well-being indicators which surrounds current youth policy thinking. The NCS can now be considered as part of this shift, and this has hastened the demise of young people rights and entitlements to social provision.  Therefore within the current phase of neoliberal youth policy the economic imperative has seeped into service provision through the commissioning process, and changing the ways of working with young people which has been described as a dogma which asserts that ‘value-for-money effectiveness for public services could only be achieved through “the market”, through competition, through commissioning-out services to “any qualified provider” – volunteer, philanthropic or profit-making’. [20]  It is within this dogma that the NCS has excelled, as the 2015 round of commissioning testifies leading to a drift towards a number of organisations which market themselves on their effectiveness and specialism in employability skills, personal development and training.


[1] Cameron, D. (2016) Prime Minister’s speech on life chances [Online] available at: accessed 23.01.16

[2] Puffett, N. (2011) ‘Analysis of youth cuts uncovers party differences’, Children & Young People Now, Friday, 02 December 2011 [Online] available at: accessed 06.11.2011

[3] NCVYO (2013) Local authority expenditure on Children and Young People’s Services NCVYO [Online] available at:  accessed 12.04.15

[4] Mason, W. (2015, p.66) ‘Austerity youth policy: exploring the distinctions between youth work in principle and youth work in practice’ Youth & Policy 114: 55-74

[5] UNISON (no date) The UK’s youth services how cuts are removing opportunities for young people and damaging their lives [Online] available at: line Catalogue/22532.pdf  accessed 10.06.15

[6] Turnbull, G. and Spence, J. (2011) ‘What’s at risk? The proliferation of risk across child and youth policy in England’, Journal of Youth Studies, 14(8): 939-959.

[7] Davies, B. (2013) ‘Youth work in a changing policy landscape: the view from England’, Youth & Policy, No. 110 May 2013

[8] Birdwell, J., Scott, R. and Reynolds, L. (2015, p.51) Service Nation 2020 London: Demos

[9] NatCen (2013) Evaluation of National Citizen Service, p.45  [Online] available at: accessed 11.01.15

[10] NatCen (2013, p.46) Evaluation of National Citizen Service, ibid.

[11] Corbett, S. (2015) ‘The Big Society five years on’ in Foster, L., Brunton, A., Deeming C., and Haux, T.  In Defence of Welfare 2, Bristol: Policy Press, p



[14]  Seetec (2016) Values and Policy [Online] available at: accessed 08.02.16

[15] Ingenus (2016) About Us [Online] available at:,70 accessed 08.02.16

[16] Mason, W. (2015) ‘Austerity youth policy: exploring the distinctions between youth work in principle and youth work in practice’ Youth & Policy 114: 55-74

[17] Cooper, C.  (2012, p.65) ‘Imagining ‘radical’ youth work possibilities – challenging the ‘symbolic violence’ within the mainstream tradition in contemporary state-led youth work practice in England’,  Journal of Youth Studies, 15(1): 53-71

[18] Sukarieh, M. and Tannock, S. (2011, p.677) ‘The positivity imperative: a critical look at the new youth development movement’, Journal of Youth Studies, 14(6): 675-691.

[19] Sinclair, et al. (2010, p.6) Failing young people? Education and aspirations in a deprived community, Education, Citizenship and Social Justice 5(1): 5-20

[20] Davies, B. (2013, p.12) ‘Youth work in a changing policy landscape: the view from England’, Youth & Policy, No. 110 May 2013



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s