National Citizen Service: working for social cohesion at the most apposite time

Reigate Grammar School head, Shaun Fenton, urges the independent sector to take another look at what David Cameron’s ‘big society’ programme has to offer

We commission our school leavers to do great things, to go and make the world a better place, and to be known not just for what they achieve but also for how they go about it. That is an ambitious undertaking, but an organisation that can leave young people better placed to understand how to acquire the skills and personal qualities required is to be welcomed.

History may judge David Cameron for other things, but his contribution to the National Citizen Service (NCS) is a legacy of which he should be proud.

A month after stepping down as an MP, Mr Cameron announced that he was to chair an expanded NCS, which he set up during his first months in office as prime minister. It was designed to instil social responsibility in young people as part of his ‘big society’.

Mr Cameron has argued that the service was an example of the big society in action, and I think he could be right.

NCS is a four-phase programme designed to provide young people aged 15 to 17 with immersive character-developing experiences. The cost is designed to put the scheme within reach of the widest range of youngsters. The maximum fee is £50, which guarantees applicants a place on either the spring, summer or autumn programme. Food, accommodation, travel and the activities themselves are all included.

While one in six of 15-17s in state schools are now involved in NCS, young people from the independent are a quarter as likely to take part

Mr Cameron, fresh from completing his political memoirs, met up with independent-sector heads last month in a bid to persuade them to engage more fully with the scheme.

The first week of NCS usually consists of five days at an activity centre

We’re all only-too-used to being admonished for that fact that our pupils and alumnae are over-represented in everything from Russell Group universities to top jobs. But here was a former PM valuing us for the contribution we could make and expressing the view that the scheme would be poorer without the contribution of young people from independent schools.

While one in six of 15-17s in state schools are now involved in NCS, young people from the independent are a quarter as likely to take part.

And that’s regrettable, because at the heart of NCS is something really important: a desire to place diverse groups of young people in an immersive setting where they can truly learn with and from one another. Absolutely explicit in its ambitions is the idea of bringing together those from different backgrounds, whether that’s those from affluent and disadvantaged homes, those with different ethnic heritages, or those from the North and South.

The scheme has attracted its fair share of criticism and some have claimed that the cost of the service is too high. Yes, working to create social cohesion does come at a cost. But I think we can all agree that the cost of social disintegration is far, far higher, whether that’s in drug abuse, racial tension or knife attacks.


More from Shaun Fenton: The Reigate Grammar School leader was moved to write to fellow heads, urging greater understanding of special educational needs, after receiving a letter from a child living with ADHD


The meeting with Mr Cameron reminded me what a gift horse this scheme is. While some colleagues may say that independent sector schools already provide a wealth of opportunities for residential trips, developing a sense of civic duty and testing students with challenging extra-curricular activities, NCS offers something rather more.

The first week usually consists of five days at an activity centre, which will be packed with adrenalin-fuelled activities such as archery and rock climbing.

Phase two of the residential is learning life skills from local business leaders such as leadership, teamwork, public speaking and budgeting. These are the skills that employers look for when they hire, every bit as much as a clutch of A* grade GCSEs and A-levels.

Back home, the young person and their team devise a community project based on an issue they have a real passion for and spend a week putting it into action.

Finally, there’s an opportunity to take stock of all that’s been achieved with fellow NCS students at a glitzy celebration event.

Shaun Fenton

I think NCS is a hidden gem – or hidden to much of our sector, it would seem.

Of course, some schools have already embraced the scheme. I for one will be encouraging much wider engagement with the programme at Reigate Grammar School, starting with the appointment of a coordinator to support roll-out on a far larger scale.

I encourage my fellow heads to take another look at the scheme and get stuck in.

It’s great value for money, develops character, extends crucial skills for life, and it is building social cohesion in a divided world.

In other words, it’s just what’s needed.