UK Politics

Cameron's citizen service - is it working?

Teenagers taking part in the national citizen scheme

This summer, thousands of teenagers are taking part in the first year of the government's National Citizen Service. The project is close to the prime minister's heart, but has been called a cover for cuts by critics. What is it actually like for those taking part?

It's an unlikely sight. A teenage boy doing yoga with a group of pensioners.

Sixteen-year-old David moves his body along with the others and helps the less mobile adopt the positions.

He is among 12 teenagers from west London who are visiting Elgin Close Resource Centre as part of a programme run by The Challenge - one of 12 organisations chosen to run the citizen service.

Elgin is run by Notting Hill Housing and provides support for elderly and vulnerable people. It gives them a place to go for lunch or a haircut, or to take part in activities like art classes and indeed, yoga.

The teenagers get a tour from outreach officer Elly. She tells them, with a hint of nerves, to "smile, be compassionate and think of your own grandparents" when they talk to the clients.

Elly needn't have worried - they're naturals.

'Learn about life'

This, in essence, is the aim of the citizen service - to get young people helping others.

David Cameron is passionate about it, saying he believes it will help tackle the "tragic waste of potential" in the UK - although the education select committee has said the cost cannot be justified at a time when youth services are being cut.

While David and Tarah do yoga, Radhika and Alex set the tables for lunch and explain why they signed up.

Image caption The group wanted to understand how the centre works so they could come up with a way to help out

"It looked fun, but you're also helping people. Some of these people don't have anybody," Radhika says.

"It also helps change their view of young people - it'll help them trust us more and not be scared," Alex adds.

In art class, 16-year-old Rose helps Dot to draw some leaves. "I love art and I like helping people, so this combines the two," she says.

Later at lunch, several of the teenagers sit down with an elderly man who regales them with tales of his journeys abroad as a youth.

"I never speak to any old people apart from my grandparents," says Niall. "You learn a lot about life from them."

At the end of the visit, one boy asks whether he can come back as a formal volunteer in his own time. A girl says to her friend: "People are so friendly here. I want to stay longer."

Cost implications

As they're ushered towards the door and the mini-bus waiting for them, they ask if they can go back and say goodbye to everyone.

Elly is surprised but obviously delighted.

Lynda Frame, Elgin's operations manager, says: "Things like this are fantastic - they bridge the generational gap.

"Older people are often very isolated and seeing these young people keeps them alive and healthy. For the teenagers, it's good for them to see life at the other end of the spectrum - and they could be our workers of the future."

Image caption Many of the teenagers said the scheme was helping to boost their confidence

The government has dedicated £13m to the citizenship scheme in 2011, and £37m in 2012. It is aiming for 10,000 participants this summer and 30,000 next year.

But the education select committee has estimated that offering it to all young people would cost more than the £350m spent in total on youth services in 2009-10.

It also questioned whether the government was getting value for money - pointing out that the cost to the taxpayer for each six week-placement was £1,182 per young person - whereas Germany provided an entire year's volunteering for just £1,228 per participant.

The MPs recommended the government instead simply accredit existing youth-development and volunteering programmes, and keep the funds earmarked for the citizen service for general, year-round youth services.

Nevertheless, the extra publicity that has come from the service's creation does seem to have made a difference - most of the Elgin group said they would not otherwise have done anything useful this summer - certainly not any kind of volunteering.

'Being accountable'

A few streets away from Elgin on the same day, another bunch of young people at a different stage in the citizenship scheme are working with the pupils of Brackenbury Primary School on a drama project.

Keeping a watchful eye is their mentor Mehdi.

He represents another key aim of the scheme - to bring teenagers into contact with people they can look up to - and, most importantly, relate to.

Image caption Some of the group were interested in coming back as formal volunteers

"I had a tough time growing up and I was really angry a lot of the time," Mehdi says. "I turned that around and I want to help other kids who are like I was."

Mehdi's motto for them is TRUE - trust, respect, understanding, empathy - and before they start their task they all get together in a sports team-style huddle to gee themselves up.

He also has a system of red and yellow cards to deal with bad behaviour and raffle tickets for rewards.

"I can see a massive change in them since the beginning," he says. "At first we had some attitude, but now they all follow my rules and they all respect each other.

"I've got project managers, kitchen managers, everyone takes their turn and we do reviews at the end of the day.

"It's about being accountable - these kids have never been accountable for anything before."

'More confidence'

Sixteen-year-old Ghalib says: "I knew if I just stayed at home I'd be stuck all day on my PS3 or doing nothing. I wanted to do something constructive with my time,"

"I think the main thing I've learned is how to adapt quickly to working in a new group. This has helped me be more confident."

All of the organisations running the citizenship scheme stick to a similar structure - a week away from home doing physical challenges like rock-climbing, another week living in university accommodation devising a community project, and a final, part-time section to deliver that project.

The Elgin group decided to do a sponsored walk around central London to raise money for the resource centre. They will also be going back to weed and improve the garden.

To grab attention, they will be doing the walk dressed as Papa Smurf - elder statesman of the cartoon Smurf clan - in honour of the older people they met at the centre.

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