The observant amongst you will have realised that it’s all gone a bit quiet on my social networking pipes over the last couple of weeks. The more observant amongst you will know that I’m away working on a scheme called the National Citizen Service with a charity called Groundwork. But what is the National Citizen Service and why would I, staunch disliker of tories and their policies, be such a fan?
The National Citizen Service is a country-wide scheme for 16 and 17 year olds who have just left education and want something to do with their summer. It’s a completely free scheme and as such attracts teenagers from all walks of life, from daughters of Labour councillors with a place at Welbeck to future mechanics and construction workers and those who just don’t know what they want to do with their lives. The young people who sign up get to go on two week long residentials. On my scheme, the first week is spent taking part in “adventure” activities such as raft-building and dragon boating and the second week involves workshops from organisations such as women’s aid, as well as a stay on a narrowboat and a trip to the cinema. The focus of the first week is as much about team and character building as it is forming friendships in the group and the mentors getting to know the young people. The second week’s focus is social awareness and planning for the last two weeks of the project, with a couple of treats thrown in. This is the point of the project I and the teenagers in my group have just reached.
The last two weeks are seen as the more important part of the project; the young people have to plan and execute a project that will benefit their local community with the princely sum of £250 to help them along. From a mentor’s point of view, this is definitely the most challenging part. Whilst in the first two weeks we had a few struggles (mainly with the kids getting up at 4am, why?), encouraging 13 teenagers from extremely different backgrounds to work together on a worthwhile and achievable project is definitely daunting. But because of this scheme, I have total faith that even the most poorly educated and downtrodden of the young people will manage this. Why? Well, because so many of them have changed in the past few weeks in such a way that I would not believe it had I not seen it myself.
Of course, this “National Citizen Service” is a scheme dreamt up by the coalition government, and I think this is what explains the questionable name. No doubt many a tory would like to “bring back national service” (alongside many a Daily Mail reader), but popular opinion and decency thankfully prevents this being the case. So we instead have NCS, run by charitable organisations around the country: Catch 22 and The Challenge Network being the largest providers, with others such as Groundwork UK and Bolton Lads and Girls Club picking up the baton in other areas.
The thing is, removing the “social mobility” aspect, this doesn’t really sound like a tory scheme. And no-one can really object to teenagers doing voluntary work that benefits the area they live in. So as much as it pains me, I have to say, the coalition government did good here. The scheme is free to all and it gives young people opportunities they might not have had the chance to experience otherwise. Whilst organisations like the Scout Movement also offer such opportunities, they cannot run without the weekly subs paid for by the parents and they do not reach out to the kind of young person who lives on an estate and “just goes and vandalises some cars” when they get bored (actual quote from one of the teenagers I work with). NCS, being an entirely new and shiny scheme has no stigma attached to it, no hidden costs except the price of a sleeping bag. Inclusivity is at the forefront of my political beliefs, and like it or not the NCS is inclusive. And that is also part of its beauty. My group of young people are truly multicultural and there has been no racism, no prejudice against religion. I have had to call a couple of them up on ableism and homophobic comments, but the point is, they now know why it’s not ok to say the “R” word and go round saying things are “gay”.
So other than the above, what is so good about this scheme? Well, every single one of my mentees has made one step to make their selves “better”. I’m not just talking about social mobility or workplace skills, I’m talking about the girl who “thought she might want to be a hairdresser” who now wants to be an activities instructor and is volunteering with a community narrowboating association. I’m talking about the boy who gets bored and vandalises things learning how to make his own entertainment and understanding his anti-authority views as something overtly political and not driven by apathy. I’m talking about the girl who in the first week turned her nose up at tasks she felt beneath her due to her privileged background getting stuck into activities in the second week and encouraging others to do so as well. The girl with OCD who is learning to chill out just a little (after all, we can’t work miracles). The boy who cares for a parent coming out of his shell, having some independence for the first time ever and living a little.
I could go on, but I won’t. It is amazing what you can inspire in even the most difficult of teenagers if you take them out of their comfort zone for a week, put them in a field and get them to do things off their own back. If you get them to work as a team, show them what’s wrong with the world and get them to think about how they can make it right. All these young people now realise that there are things they can do to help not only themselves but the people around them live better lives. And if we can inspire social awareness and a sense of political interest in a generation, then why let our personal politics get in the way?