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National Citizen Service 'too costly to last'

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By Lucy Phillips

22 July 2010

Government plans to give every teenager the opportunity to take part in a community service scheme are likely to prove unsustainable after the first two years, Public Finance has been told.

Tony Travers, director of the Greater London Group at the London School of Economics, said the National Citizen Service, launched today by Prime Minister David Cameron, could be unaffordable beyond the pilot schemes planned for the summers of 2011 and 2012.

According to Cameron, some 10,000 16-year olds will kick-start the programme by taking part in two-month courses next summer. This will be followed by 30,000 school–leavers the following year, costing £13m and £37m respectively. Eventually the voluntary form of national service will be made universal. 

But Travers warned that it would be ‘very very expensive’ in the long term, based on current costings.  ‘It would be hard to sustain it if there was a very large uptake among all young people when and if it becomes universal.  With a small number, it’s clearly financeable this year and next but, in the future – at a time when public spending is going to be highly constrained – it’s hard to see how all that money [will be found],’ he said.

Travers added that there was also a risk that all the places would be taken up by the middle and upper classes, who might do voluntary work anyway, failing to reach vulnerable teenagers who might benefit the most.  

The NCS will involve both residential and home-based activities, ranging from outdoor pursuits to helping people in the community, and will be run by charities and social enterprises. It is part of the government’s ‘Big Society’ policy to create an army of volunteers to help run public services and boost community cohesion. 

Cameron said the scheme would give teenagers the ‘shape and direction’ that was often absent nowadays. ‘It’s going to mix young people from different backgrounds in a way that doesn’t happen right now. It’s going to teach them what it means to be socially responsible. Above all it’s going to inspire a generation of young people to appreciate what they can achieve and how they can be part of the Big Society,’ he said.