A review of ‘youth services’: government promises – and their limitations

A review of ‘youth services’: government promises – and their limitations

As the Introduction to this blog makes clear, posting on it depends ‘not just on when but also if significant relevant events, proposals, pronouncements etc occur.’ The nearly five-month gap since the last piece is therefore only partly explained – excused! – by the distraction of my trying to write or contribute to other articles. Over that period youth work’s presumed ‘preventative’ potential has attracted some attention – for example in supporting young people’s schooling, including in situations like that of 15-year-old ‘Child Q’ who was strip-searched by police while she was having a period[1]. However, the gap in posting has happened mainly because I hadn’t identified significant government or other moves focused on the blog’s primary concerns: open youth work and the facilities which provide it. 

Until, that is, in early February this year when the DCMS published Youth Review: Summary findings and government response[2].

The backstory

This starts in December 2020 when the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a review of what he called the Treasury’s ‘programmes to support youth services …[3]’ – later explained by the National Youth Agency (NYA) as to ‘set policy direction for the out-of-school agenda’[4]. Led by the Department of Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the review was eventually launched in February 2021 using two digital questionnaires and ‘multiple workshops and focus groups’.

I have to admit that, given the long silence which had preceded it, the DCMS’s sudden release of the report did make me wonder whether it was just another of those rhetorical government ‘policy initiatives’ then being rushed out in an attempt to keep a lame-duck Prime Minister in his job. However, when I managed to push myself beyond my cynicism, I had to take into account that the Review had prompted responses from nearly 6000 young people, 170 ‘youth sector organisations’ and 32 ‘academics/researchers’ – and that, as well as (inevitably?) leaving behind some critical questions, it did offer some possibly hopeful gestures to open youth work.   

The positives

In the words of young people… 

Particularly significant here is the evidence it presents on what young people say they value about their involvement in youth work – opportunities, for example, to

  • ‘… meet people outside of school’; 
  • form new friendships, ‘engage with other young people from different backgrounds’ and ‘be around friends in a safe place and be themselves’; 
  • ‘speak to someone from outside the home and school environment’; 
  • ‘… volunteer and “give back” to their community’; and 
  • be ‘involved in decision-making’ – with ‘their voices heard, opinions respected’.

The Report also explicitly concludes that, as much as young people appreciated how ‘…the youth sector had adapted to keep supporting them during the pandemic’, this for them ‘did not replace the need for in-person opportunities’. 

Also revealing – and valuable – is the evidence young people provided on what they see as the ‘barriers’ to their involvement in open youth work facilities. As well as the ‘loss of youth provision… due to funding cuts’, these include the ‘quality of provision’ and the importance of having ‘trained and passionate youth workers or volunteers to create an inclusive and welcoming environment, where young people felt supported and respected’.

… of the academics…

Some telling inputs came, too, from the academics surveyed – and not just about the need for ‘positive evidence around the impact of youth services’. Expressing ‘a strong preference for resource funding’, they particularly pointed to the need for money for ‘universal services’ ‘to be accessible and long-term …’ They also proposed that ‘where capital funding was needed it should be small-scale, flexible and locally determined’ including for ‘pop-up or modular builds’. 

An On-side Youth Zone

For me, these responses prompted two, albeit tentative, questions. 

  • Is there here, perhaps, an implicit challenge here to those cash-strapped local authorities which have been committing millions of pounds of public money to help build and then run large-scale projects such as the On-Side Youth Zones? [5]
  • Could the small-scale, flexible and pop-up facilities they are suggesting be a way of overcoming another of the ‘barriers’ young people identified to their continuing participation in open youth work facilities – ‘outgrowing the existing provision’? 

… and of the DCMS 

In its ‘Introduction’ to the Report, the DCMS gives explicit recognition to youth work’s core aspirations to, for example, ‘provide young people with somewhere to go, something to do and someone to talk to …’ including ‘the opportunity to build a relationship with a trusted adult’. It notes, too, the ‘significant role’ this provision plays for an estimated 450,000 young people ‘… not yet (yet?) known to statutory services’[6]. 

Though often sounding rhetorical, some of the DCMS’s more specific proposals also offer some encouragement. A ‘Youth Sector Strategy’ is to be developed, for example, aimed at ‘… provid(ing) clarity on the government’s role in supporting youth services’. By 2025 every young person is to have access ‘to regular out of school activities, adventures away from home and opportunities to volunteer’, with the DCMS taking the lead ‘in enabling effective youth participation in decision-making at all levels’. It will also, it says, across the DCMS itself and more widely within government, seek ‘greater alignment … to maximise and coordinate funding opportunities for the youth sector’. 

Most grounded, however, is an allocation in 2022-23 of £790,000 for 547 bursaries to support workers doing Level 2 & 3 youth work training. Coming as the NYA is tentatively predicting some recovery in the number of qualifying courses[7], this extends the three-year bursary programme which it and the Network of Regional Youth Work Units started in November 2019 and which so far has supported the training of some 650 workers[8]. As ‘a starting point’ for re-building a ‘skilled and trained workforce’ decimated by the post-2010 budget cuts, NYA is now calling in the longer term for the recruitment and training of 10,000 qualified youth workers, 20,000 youth support workers and 40,000 volunteers[9].  

… and the doubts


Youth Investment Fund

The Youth Investment Fund (YIF) aims to create, expand and improve local youth facilities and their services, in order to drive positive outcomes for young people, including improved health and wellbeing, and skills for work/employability and life.

Probed further, however, the Report leaves behind a number of serious questions -particularly about the commitment to ‘invest £560 million over the next 3 years to deliver the new National Youth Guarantee’. Far from being new money, this is yet another (?a third) ‘launch’ of a Youth Investment Fund (YIF) first offered in September 2019. According to an MP’s report published nearly two years later, in July 2021, its allocation had been delayed by Covid, with by then ‘substantive funding’ predicted only ‘from 2022’[10]. Though the message isn’t entirely clear, a recent DCMS advert for an ‘intermediary grantmaker for … YIF Phase 2’ seems also to acknowledge that up to March 2022 only ‘£10 million of capital investment (was) being released for early disbursement’[11]. 

The YIF’s £560 million is anyway only just over half of the £1.1 billion cuts in local authorities’ spending on youth services in England since 2010-2011, resulting by 2020-2021in seven councils reporting nil annual expenditure on this provision and 16 less than £15 on each 5-17 year old[12]. Since 2010 these cuts have forced the closure of over 760 youth centres, the loss of 139,000 youth service places and the removal of at least 35,000 hours of ‘outreach work’[13] – an approach which since Covid hit has been increasingly needed and valued[14]. Set in this context, the report’s promise of £368 million over the next three years to ‘create and expand up to 300 new youth centres … (and) over 45,000 extra youth activities per year’ clearly falls well short of any genuine reinstatement of state-funded local Youth Services[15].

 Nor is all of the rest of the YIF’s money intended to fund only open youth work facilities for 13-19-year-olds. Over the next three years, more than 30 per cent of it (£171 million) is being set aside for an NCS programme which, though now quite radically rejigged, is still targeted only at 16 and 17 year olds[16]. By 2025 across England a total of £22 million is also to go to the Duke of Edinburgh Award scheme so that it can operate in every state-funded secondary school; to create thousands of new ‘iwill’ youth volunteering opportunities; and (more on this later) to ‘eliminate current non-military Uniformed Groups’ waiting lists for teenagers up and down the country’.

Local authorities’ statutory duty 

Another of the DCMS’s own commitments in the Report – to carry out a review aimed at providing ‘greater clarity on the Statutory Duty for Local Authorities on youth services’ – also for me raises serious questions. Why for example in the paper is there no mention of or feedback on a review of this ‘duty’ announced way back in October 2019?[17] Why is the new review to be focused only on local authorities’ requirement to ‘support… the workforce’, when their other key duties include, for example, to ‘… take steps to ascertain the views of young people’ and to ‘offer young people opportunity in safe environments to take part in a wide range of sports, arts, music and other activities…’ And, perhaps most important in the long run, will this new review consider removing the clause in the current (2012) guidance – that local authorities need to provide Youth Services only ‘as far as is reasonably practicable’[18] – which across England has given them permission to cut if not completely wind up their open-access provision[19].

‘Levelling up’[20]

Secretary of State Nadine Dorries

Scattered through the Youth Review Report, too, are passing references to the government’s so-called ‘levelling up agenda’. In her Foreward, for example, Secretary of State Nadine Dorries commits the DCMS ‘to ensuring all young people are given opportunities, levelling up where they are under-served, socially excluded and economically disadvantaged”’. Both her Foreword and the Report itself include promises to ‘ensure that our spending and programmes meet the needs of young people as well as our ambitions on “levelling up”’; and that the ‘new Youth Guarantee (will be) backed up by £560 million funding with a firm focus on levelling up’. Two sub-sections of the Report are headed ‘Levelling up and expanding access to youth provision’, with one promising specifically that the 300 new and expanded youth centres will be for ‘… levelling up youth infrastructure in ‘left-behind’ places, so young people who are most in need have access to youth workers and positive activities’.

All this, however, needs to be placed in the context of the government’s actual ‘Levelling up’ policy, finally set out in a White Paper also published in early February[21]. The sixteen pages of the Executive Summary manage just two references to young people and ‘youth services’. One – reinforcing all those negative ‘they’re-up-to-no-good’ stereotypes – promises ‘… to make sure 16- and 17-year olds who commit crimes pay their community back with visible labour to improve the local environment’. The other, buried in a 135-word paragraph on page 14 of 16, repeats the Youth Guarantee commitments to ensure that by 2025 all young people will have access to ‘out of school activities’, to embed the Duke of Edinburgh Award Scheme in every secondary school and to eliminate uniformed organisations’ waiting lists. 

Combined Cadet Force – Mill Hill School

Particularly revealing, however, in a single paragraph in the White Paper Summary which somehow didn’t find its way into the DCMS’s own Report, is the detail it provides on this last commitment – that getting rid of the uniformed groups’ waiting lists is necessary in order to 

… give more students the transformative opportunity to join the cadets, providing more support to the state school sector to increase Combined Cadet Force participation. (Bold in the original). This will include linking funding of cadet units in private schools with a requirement to ensure support for the expansion of cadet forces in state schools and open access to nearby state school students[22].

So there, it seems, we have it: an indication of the government’s underlying understanding of ‘open access’ youth work and the need for military-type structures and methods to make it truly ‘transformative’.


  1. Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘Violence reduction scheme see youth workers chaperone walk to school’, CYPN, 7 January; Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘ School must link with youth services to boost pupil wellbeing’, CYPN, 9 February; Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘Strip-searched by police’, CYPN, 21 March
  2. GOV.UK, 2022, ‘Summary findings and government response’, 1 February, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/youth-review-summary-findings-and-government-response/youth-review-summary-findings-and-government-response
  3. HM Treasury , 2020, ‘Spending Review 2020’, updated 15 December, Section 7.28 https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/spending-review-2020-documents/spending-review-2020;
  4. NYA, 2021, ‘Treasury rapid review of government youth policies’, 11 February, https://www.nya.org.uk/treasury-rapid-review-of-government-youth-policies/
  5. See for example Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘Barnsley gives go-ahead to Yorkshire’s first Onside Youth Zone’ CYPN, 18 August; Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘Green light for South West’s first Youth Zone’ CYPN, 22 September
  6. NYA, 2021, Between The Lines’, p4, March, https://static.nya.org.uk/static/f3fcc0c77f1f2d3b579af6274648540b/Between-the-lines-final-version.pdf
  7. Joe Lepper, 2022, ‘Youth work training levels show signs of recovery after hitting record low’, CYPN, 16 March
  8. NYA, 2022, ‘Youth Work Bursary Places Available Now’, 9 March, https://nya.org.uk/youth-work-bursary-places-available-now/; Fiona Simpson, 2022, ‘NYA launches new round of training bursaries’ CYPN, 9 March 
  9.  NYA/CYPN, 2022, ‘Guide to Youth Work’, 8 March, https://www.cypnow.co.uk/features/article/guide-to-youth-work
  10.  All Party Parliamentary Group on Youth Affairs, 2021, Review of Youth Work in England: Interim report, July, http://www.youthappg.org.uk/review-of-youth-work-in-england-interim-report/
  11. DCMS, 2022, ‘Youth Investment Fund Phase 2: Intermediary grant maker specification requirements’, 23 February, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/youth-investment-fund-phase-2-intermediary-grant-maker-competition/youth-investment-fund-phase-2-intermediary-grant-maker-specification-of-requirements 
  12. YMCA, 2022, Devalued: A decade of cuts to youth services, February, p 10, https://www.ymca.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/02/ymca-devalued-2022-1.pdf
  13.  Unison, 2014, The Damage: UK youth services, Unison, August; Unison, 2016, The Damage: A Future at Risk – cuts to youth services,  August, Unison; Hannah Richardson (2016), ‘Youth services heading towards collapse, says union’, BBC News, 12 August, https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/education-37046967  
  14. See for example Graeme Tiffany, 2022, ‘COVID19 as a potentially valuable disruptive force in the conceptualisation of Street-based Youth Work’, Youth and Policy, 28 January, https://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/covid19-as-a-potentially-valuable-disruptive/ 
  15. See ‘”Building back better” – to what?’, 25 September 2021, at https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2021/09/25/building-bac
  16.  Fiona Simpson, 2021, ‘NCS sees funding reduction in Spending Review’, CYPN, 29 October
  17.   GOV.UK, 2019, ‘Review launched into statutory guidance for Local Authorities on providing youth services’, 10 July, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/review-launched-into-statutory-guidance-for-local-authorities-on-providing-youth-services
  18. Department for Education, 2012, ‘Statutory Guidance for Local Authorities on Services and Activities to Improve Young People’s Well-being’, 1 June, Paras 2, 3, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/statutory-guidance-to-improve-young-peoples-well-being
  19.  Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘Dozens of councils ignore youth service legal duty’, CYPN, 8 July 
  20.  For a more detailed analysis of the implications of ‘levelling up’ for open youth work, see Bernard Davies and Jon Ord, 2022, ‘Young People, Youth Work and the “Levelling Up” Policy Agenda’, Local Economy, forthcoming
  21. HM Government, 2022 ‘Levelling up in the United Kingdom: Executive Summary’, February,  https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/1052046/Executive_Summary.pdf
  22. HM Government, 2022, p15

Bernard Davies

March 2022 

The National Citizens Service under scrutiny: past – and future?

A preamble for Coronavirus times

This piece has been in the drafting through most of March and now into April – some six weeks in which everyday life as we have long taken it for granted has changed in many unexpected and uncomfortable ways. At one point this left me asking myself: why am I spending time discussing something as petty as the National Citizens Service when, across the world, macro events are affecting – damaging – so many lives? 

And then I thought: why not? By the time we come out of this crisis, our perspectives – on young people, on the services they want and need, on social policy and the crucial importance of the state as an expression of our collective responsibility for each other – all of these will hopefully have changed in numerous post-neo-liberal ways. In the process, with new learning perhaps more personally internalised through direct and often painful experience, even something as marginal as NCS might have become more open to, and even more in need of, critique and rethinking.

So – somewhat arrogantly perhaps – I’ve decided to risk throwing this into the mix.

NCS: the new ‘national youth service’?  

If my anecdotal evidence is any guide the National Citizens Service (NCS), at least in England, has become an embedded component of our ‘youth services [1]. This was brought home to me, if rather late, on a Saturday afternoon some weeks ago when I was pressed by a group of young people proudly wearing their NCS T-shirts to join a ‘game’ they were running in the town centre. Very visible, too, in a local community centre a few days later were the left-overs of a junior youth club project carried out the previous evening by a different NCS group. 

Evidence from more objective sources is suggesting that, at national policy level also, NCS has achieved a taken-for-granted status. By 2018, for example, it was receiving ninety-five per cent (£634 million) of government funding for ‘youth services’. And despite the shadow civil society minister’s highly critical comments on how it operates in a recent Parliamentary debate [2], all Labour could manage on NCS in its otherwise radical pre-election ‘Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services’ was a passing reference to a ‘national programme’ whose ‘accredited youth social action’ activities it promised to support [3].

Two developments over the last few months, however, suggest that this consensus around NCS might be starting to fracture a little. One is a legal challenge for breach of contract by one of its voluntary sector ‘suppliers’; the other the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) announcement that it is to review NCS’s use of public money [4]. Though focusing largely on operational matters, both of these nonetheless offer an opportunity to reopen a wider debate not just on NCS’s now priority status within our overall youth provision but also on its rationale and the on-the-ground content and methodology of its practice. 

From a prime ministerial vision to a statutory provision

I say ‘reopen’ here because as always history carries some strong and relevant previous messages for the present. A particularly crucial one is how dependent NCS has been for its rise and rise on privileged and powerful promoters and patrons. It was after all David Cameron who in 2005, as recently elected leader of the Conservative Party, first spelt out his vision for what at that stage he was describing as ‘a school leaver programme lasting a few months’. Envisaged as ‘a new national movement’ – a ‘national framework for youth engagement and volunteering’ – this, Cameron asserted, would ‘prepare… young people for their responsibilities as adult citizens’ [5]. The Conservative Party’s 2010 election manifesto then extended these aspirations to include offering 16 year olds opportunities ‘to … mix with people of different backgrounds, and starting to get involved in their communities’ [6].

Though over time NCS understandably came to be personalised as Cameron’s ‘vanity project’[7], it has always had, and still has, a much wider neo-liberal rationale. Not only does this assume a requirement to be competitive – illustrated by NCS’s procedures for awarding and evaluating its contracts. It has also embedded notions of the resilient and aspiring though compliant citizen and how they can be – must be – moulded as they grow into adulthood. Though here NCS and its precursors have made much of the importance of ‘teamwork’, also central to its promotion has been a strong emphasis on individualistic achievement – demonstrated for example by its current reminder to potential participants that when assessing university applicants ‘UCAS look for more than just points’ [8]. In addition, for Cameron as for previous Conservative and indeed New Labour governments [9], there has been a broader policy prompt: their deep distrust of much of existing leisure-time provision for young people – especially those local authority youth work facilities which sought proactively to work with and through the very peer groups which for many national policy-makers were at the root of society’s ‘youth problems’. 

By the time Cameron actually launched the scheme – only two months after becoming Prime Minister – it was therefore not surprising that he was explicitly locating it within his high profile and highly ambitious ‘Big Society’ strategy. This was ‘urgently’ needed, he claimed, to help repair the ‘social fabric’ of Britain’s ‘broken society’ by shifting power downwards from the centre, particularly by encouraging and supporting locally-based forms of volunteering [10]. For the NCS programme, this was quickly relabelled ‘social action’ – a term which, in sharp contrast to its past radical focus, was redefined by the DCMS as: …about people coming together to help improve their lives and solve the problems that are important in their communities. It can include volunteering, giving money community action or simple neighbourly acts [11].

Even before its official launch, the scheme had in effect been piloted by a new organisation, The Challenge. This had strong links with other influential Big Society enthusiasts and also with large private corporations such as Poundland and McKinsey Management Consultancy [12]. The 670 young people recruited to its 2009-10 programme were offered ‘intensive’ training … in leadership, management and communication skills’ with a view, it was explicitly suggested, ‘…to testing potential models for (the) National Citizens Service’ [13]When the actual piloting schemes were announced for 2011, The Challenge had to deny it was ‘prospering as a result of friends in high places’ when it emerged as by far ‘the lead provider’ with a £7 million contract to offer 30 per cent (3240) of that year’s planned 11,000 places [14].

Initially comprising a school summer holiday residential followed by a local ‘social action’ project, by 2014 shorter autumn and spring half-term programmes were also being offered. In 2016 the Cameron government announced that its budget to 2020-21 would be £1.2 billion, with the scheme’s actual spend between 2014-15 and 2017 totalling £475 million [15]. As one of its strategic goals was to increase the number of participants year-on-year, recruitment efforts by then included emailing and texting school-leavers to addresses provided by their schools, and plans, announced in 2018, to mount a four-year £75 million ‘marketing campaign’ [16].

As the amounts of public money going into the scheme grew, pressures built for it to become – or at least to be seen to be – less dependent on government. In 2014, responsibility for running it was passed to a community interest company which, constituted as a trust, was subsequently given a Royal Charter [17].When the Trust was put on a ‘permanent statutory footing’ in 2016, a legal duty to promote the programme was placed on schools, sixth-form colleges and local authorities [18].

Impacts and achievements: positive – and not so positive 

Independent evaluations of the scheme in these years reported a range of positive ‘impacts’ and ‘outcomes’ for the young people – in relation to, for example, their ‘improved teamwork’, their ‘transitions to adulthood’, their ‘social mixing; and their ‘community involvement’ [19]. The evaluations often also claimed significant ‘monetised’ gains – such as in 2016, for every pound spent, £1.79-worth of economic and volunteering ‘benefits’ from the summer programme and £2.21 from the autumn programme [20].

By 2017, however, reports by the House of Commons Public Accounts Select Committee and the National Audit Office (NAO) [21] were raising questions about NCS’s transparency and governance as an organisation and about a lack of data on the scheme’s longer-term effects on young people’s lives. Though in 2018-19 NCS did finally meet its recruitment targets [22], seven years after its launch the NAO was reporting that only 36 per cent of the 333,000 young people who that year had expressed an interest in the programme had then registered and only 28 per cent (92,700) had actually joined – 38 per cent below its recruitment target. This, according to the Local Government Association (LGA), amounted nationally to only 12 per cent of the eligible age group, with the rate in some areas as low as 4 per cent [23]. With eight thousand five hundred (8.6 per cent) of those who did join not completing [24], by 2018 the government was acknowledging that the scheme had failed to recoup from providers £9.8 million for unfilled places [25].By then (in 2017) NCS had reduced its recruitment target for 2020-21 from 360,000 to 247,000 – though without at that stage indicating any reduction in its allocated budget [26].

2020: new questions; new criticisms 

Though post-Cameron governments have been less gung-ho about the scheme, until recently their support for NCS has, at least in public, remained largely unquestioned. In 2018 for example, Theresa May’s ‘youth’ minister rejected a Labour Party demand that NCS’s performance be evaluated against the provision of local authority Youth Services [27] – the ones, that is, that although also nominally ‘statutory’ had had their budgets in England and Wales cut between 2010/11 and 2018/19 by over £1 billion. [28]Support clearly continues, too, from the wider ‘youth sector’ with organisations as varied as the Jewish Lads Brigade, Young People Cornwall and Bolton Lads and Girls Club acting as programme ‘deliverers’ [29].

Renewed scrutiny of NCS, its role and ways of operating is thus now long-overdue – and important.

Removing The Challenge

The first prompt for this occurred in August last year when NCS’s Chief Executive Michael Lynas suddenly announced that it would not be renewing its estimated £60-million-a-year contract with The Challenge. This was the organisation which, by ‘pre-piloting’ NCS-type schemes in 2009, had, in its own words, ‘played a critical and founding role in NCS for over 10 years from initial design of the programme to directly supporting over 242,000 young people…’. Its programmes in London, the South East and the West Midlands made it, still, NCS’s largest ‘provider’ [30]. 

Michael Lynas

According to Lynas, NCS had been forced to take this action because of The Challenge’s refusal to adopt a shared IT system – later described by The Challenge as ‘unfit for purpose’ [31]. This, he said – perhaps reflecting sensitivity to some past criticisms – ‘ensures value for money, improves customer experience and protects young people’s data’. He also claimed that that summer The Challenge had ‘let down’ 4,000 young people by failing to allocate them places on the programme [32].

As in its view a new contract was still being negotiated, The Challenge initially expressed surprise at the NCS decision to end its ‘principal funding source’ and said it remained committed to resolving the dispute [33] However, by October, claiming that the technical failures of the NCS’s IT system had prevented thousands of young people completing the first day of that summer’s programme, it had started a £22 million legal action against NCS for breach of contract and loss of earnings and posted a separate claim for defamation. It also lodged a complaint with the DCMS which the then Culture Secretary Nicky Morgan said the Department would investigate. This not only talked of ‘the continued poor behaviour of the NCS’s leadership’ and of ‘urgent concerns regarding the mismanagement of the NCS programme by the trust’. It also accused the DCMS of a ‘worrying’ lack of scrutiny of the NCS [34].  

A month later, just as NCS was rebranding itself with a £3 million advertising campaign and a new logo [35], The Challenge went into administration, putting the jobs of its 400 staff at risk [36]. Its Chair issued a public statement bluntly accusing NCS of having ‘jeopardised many thousands of opportunities for young people’ and calling the whole episode ‘a national scandal’ [37] – claims the NCS strongly rejected [38].

The NCS Chief Executive: letting go – or not?

Interweaving with these developments have been repercussions of Lynas’s decision to resign as NCS’s Chief Executive, announced in September 2019. As this took effect at the beginning of March [39] it emerged that his exit package included £15,000 to help him train for a new job and retention as a paid consultant. Declaring the package ‘unacceptable’, the DCMS said it had ‘taken swift action to stop this’ and that it was undertaking ‘a thorough review’ to investigate ‘wider issues around governance’. NCS immediately withdrew its offer to Lynas and also sought to reassure its supporters – including no doubt the many other groups and organisations which had become reliant on its funding – that ‘DCMS had reiterated its support for the trust’ [40].

A ‘national programme’ fit for the times?

In April, NCS announced that, with its summer programme for a predicted 95,000 young people cancelled because of the coronavirus lockdown, it was in discussions with the DCMS and its ‘suppliers’ on providing a free digital programme focused on ‘the skills and life lessons not learned in the classroom’ as well as a possible role for the scheme ‘to help get the country back on its feet by mobilising young people as volunteers [41].

However, other than the DCMS revealing that it has now had a complaint from another of NCS’s small delivery partners [42], no updates seem to be available on either its review of the Trust or The Challenge’s legal action. Given their strong echoes of past criticisms of how NCS operates and uses public money, these developments again point to the need to for a wider and more fundamental debate on the programme. Such as: why is it still being treated as the priority provision for young people both by the government and – via a stance of critical neutrality – by so many ‘youth sector’ interests? And amid the growing evidence of the financial, mental health, exam and other pressures which teenagers overall are facing [43], what justifies focusing so many scarce public resources on just the 16/17 year old age group? 

Nor for me have these concerns been allayed by the organisational priorities indicated by NCS’s appointment as Chief Executive (Mark Gifford) of someone who is a newcomer not only to the national voluntary youth sector but also, it seems, to the wider field of leisure-time informal educational provision for young people. Here, according to its Chair, what it judged to be ‘invaluable to NCS as it moves into its second decade, a new delivery network and as exciting new partners come on board’ was Gifford’s 20 years of high-level private sector managerial experience with Waitrose as Director of Shop Trade and of Retail Operations (North)[44].

The question which all this leaves me with, therefore, is: how can this commercialising version of NCS aimed at such a limited age-cohort be an alternative to a provision which, in 2013, was being used by 630,000 8-16 year olds via locally accessible year-round youth facilities and projects? [45] Indeed, as I was writing this piece, that question became even more pressing with the news that one of the most high-profile of the much vaunted forms of replacement for those lost local authority services – Kensington and Chelsea’s employee-led ‘youth mutual’ EPIC – had been forced to close because of the reduction in just the last fifteen months ‘in the overall level of funding for youth services’ [46].

Certainly nothing that the current government is offering comes close to reinstating those closed youth centre buildings and disbanded detached youth worker teams – provision which, far from starting from the perceptions and prescriptions of a powerful largely Oxbridge elite, sought to take their lead from the interests, concerns and needs of the young people who, by choice, actually engaged. For filling the huge ‘austerity’ gaps which remain in local authority and indeed many voluntary organisation revenue budgets, the best we have again been offered are what I call ‘gesture policies’. Such as, in October 2019, as a little election sweetener, a new Youth Investment Fund of £500 million to be used – over five years, it is important to remind ourselves – for building and refurbishing youth centres and for mobile facilities. And the DCMS’s ‘Youth Accelerator Fund’, announced last January, with its allocation of £7 million for ‘extra youth club sessions’. 

Some of the realities of such offers were laid bare last month in a UK Youth announcement that, to support what it called ‘positive activities for young people’, it had distributed £1.16 million of the ‘accelerator’ money in grants ranging from £360 to £20,000 to 168 organisations and community groups. However, not only did the statement make clear that many of those receiving the money were not ‘open’ youth work facilities but ‘sports clubs, counselling services (and) creative writing workshops’. In revealing that in just a two-week window it had received over 1400 applications totalling £15 million, it also spoke volumes about the current financial state of even this wider ‘youth’ field [47].

Meanwhile, even before the virus struck, what had we had by way of follow-up to the government review of the statutory Youth Service guidance to local authorities, initiated in the run-up to December’s election? 



Just as this piece was about to be posted it emerged that the NCS Trust had agreed a settlement of their dispute with The Challenge. With DCMS and Treasury approval, it has agreed to pay £2.8m for costs incurred by The Challenge for unfilled places during 2019. NCS, however, said it accepted no liability for two other elements of The Challenge’s legal claim. 

The Challenge is still facing claims of £8 million from some local providers.(Darren Hayes, 2020, ‘Collapsed charity settles legal dispute with NCS Trust’, CYPN, 16 April) 


1, Neil Puffett, 2018, ‘“NCS found to account for 95 per cent of Government Youth Service Spend”’, CYPN, 22 June

2. Kirsty Weakly, 2019, ‘Shadow minister criticises DCMS for withholding data on NCS Trust funding’, Civil Society News, 23 October

 3. Labour Party, 2019, Only Young Once: The Labour Party’s Vision for Rebuilding Youth Services, Pp 11, 14.

4. Nina Jacobs, 2019a, ‘“Charity launches legal action over NCS dispute”’, CYPN, 15 October; Neil Puffett, 2020a, ‘DCMS launches review into NCS 4. governance’, CYPN, 2 March

5. David Cameron, 2005, ‘Speech to the Foreign Policy Centre’, 24 August

6. Conservative Party, 2010, An Invitation to join the Government of Britain: The Conservative Party Manifesto 2010, https://www.conservatives.com/~/media/Files/Manifesto2010

7. Sean Murphy, 2017, ‘The National Citizen Service and The ‘Magic Money Tree’”, Youth and Policy, 9 Oct, http://www.youthandpolicy.org/articles/ncs-money-tree/

8. NCS, 2020, ‘Frequently asked questions’, https://wearencs.com/faqs, accessed 8 April 

9. See for example my blog post ‘A ‘curriculum’ for youth work? Why now? Why at all?’, Feb 2020, https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2020/02/27/a-curriculum-for-youth-work-why-now-why-at-all/

10. Conservatives, 2007, ‘It’s time to inspire Britain’s teenagers: National citizen service for the 21st century: A six-week programme for every school leaver’, http://conservativehome.blogs.com/interviews/files/timetoinspire.pdf, p. 3; Gov.UK, 2010, ‘PM to launch National Citizen Service pilots for young people’, 22 July, https://www.gov.uk/government/news/prime-minister-to-launch-national-citizen-service-pilots-for-young-people

11. Gov.UK, 2016, ‘Policy Paper: Social Action’, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/centre-for-social-action/centre-for-social-action, 13 July

12. Tania de St Croix, 2015, ‘Volunteers and entrepreneurs? Youth work and the Big Society’, in Graham Bright (ed), Youth Work: Histories, Policy and Contexts, London, Palgrave, pp 58-79

13. Janaki Mahadevan, 2009, ‘“Charity to test concept of National Citizen Service”’, CYPN, 31 March

14. Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘National citizen servant’, CYPN, 15 May; Gabriella Jozwiak, 2010, ‘The Challenge Network announced as lead provider of National Citizen Service’, CYPN, 10 November

15. Neil Puffett, 2016, ‘“Queen’s Speech: £1.2bn set aside for NCS expansion”’, CYPN, 18 May; Neil Puffett, 2017, ‘“MPs question future of NCS amid concerns over cost”’, CYPN, 14 March   

16. Adam Offord, 2016, ‘“NCS marketing budget tops £8m in 2015”’, CYPN, 31 August

17. Laura McCardle, 2014, ‘Hurd hands NCS over to independent trust’, CYPN, 6 February; GOV.UK, 2016, ‘News story: Government introduces National Citizen Service (NCS) Bill to Parliament’, 12 October 

18. Alison Sherman, 2016, ‘National Citizens Service to have permanent statutory status, Queen’s Speech says’, Civil Society News, 18 May 

19. Sally Panayiotou et al, 2017, National Citizens Service 2016 Evaluation, Kantar/LSE, December, p 27; Neil Puffett, 2012, ‘Government hails success of National Citizens Service scheme’, CYPN, 17 May

20. Sally Panayiotou et al, 2017

21. National Audit Office, 2017,National Citizens Service, 12 January; www.parliament.uk 2017, National Citizens Service, 10 March

22. NCS Trust, 2020, Annual Report and Accounts 2018 – 2019, February, https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/national-citizen-service-annual-report-and-accounts-20182019

23. Peter Walker, 2018, ‘Cameron’s £1.5bn “big society” youth scheme reaching few teenagers’, Guardian 2 August;  

24. National Audit Office, 2017, Summary, para 15; Figure 12, p 34,

25. Joe Lepper, 2018a, ‘“Youth minister prioritises reducing unfilled NCS places”’, CYPN, 19 July

26. Neil Puffett, 2017

27. Joe Lepper, 2018b, ‘”Crouch dismisses call for NCS to be evaluated against traditional youth services”’, CYPN, 26 January  

28. Neil Puffett, 2020b, ‘Youth Services “suffer £1BN funding cut in less than a decade”’, CYPN, 20 January; Derren Hayes, 2020, Areas with deepest council Youth Service spending cuts revealed’, CYPN, 28 January  

29. NCS, 2020, ‘The NCS Delivery Network’, https://wearencs.com/network-providers 

30. David Harris, 2019, ‘”National Citizens Service Trust drops major provider”’, CYPN, 1 August; Andy Hillier, 2019, ‘Largest NCS provider loses contract worth estimated £60m a year’, Third Sector, 1 August; Dan Parton, 2019, ‘”National Citizens Service provider vows to continue work following split”’, CYPN, 14 August; Joe Lepper, 2019a, ‘Youth charity The Challenge goes into administration’, CYPN, 28 November 

31. Unite for Our Society, 2020a, ‘National Citizens Service accused of “mismanagement and failure of leadership”’, Blog, 23 March, https://www.uniteforoursociety.org/blog/national-citizen-service-accused-of-mismanagement-and-failure-of-leadership/  

32. David Harris, 2019

33. David Harris, 2019

34. Nina Jacobs, 2019a; John Plummer, 2019, ‘Ministers accused of “worrying” lack of scrutiny in NCS case’, Third Sector, 15 October; Unite for Our Society, 2020a 

35. Fiona Simpson, 2020a, ‘NCS Trust names Waitrose director as new chief’”, CYPN, 8 January 

36. Unite for Our Society, 2020b, ‘More trouble ahead for NCS Trust’, 23 March, , https://www.uniteforoursociety.org/blog/more-trouble-ahead-for-ncs-trust/ 

37. Bill Ronald, 2019, ‘Statement from Bill Ronald, Chairman of The Challenge Network’, 27 November 

38. Joe Lepper, 2019a; John Plummer, 2019; Bill Ronald, 2019

39. Joanne Parkes, 2019a, ‘“NCS Trust chief Michael Lynas to step down”’, CYPN, 12 September; Fiona Simpson, 2020a; John Plummer, 2020, ‘Retail expert to take over at top of the NCS Trust, Third Sector,, 8 January;  

40. Neil Puffett, 2020a

41 Neil Puffett, 2020, ‘Coronavirus: NCS considers volunteering role to help national effort’, CYPN, 27 March; Fiona Simpson, 2020, ‘NCS cancels summer programme amid pandemic’, CYPN, 8 April 

42. Unite for Our Society, 2020b, ‘More trouble ahead for NCS Trust’, 23 March

43. See for example ‘Breaching the social contract with young people’, 20 0ct  2019, at https://youthworkslivinghistory.com/2019/10/20/breaching-the-social-contract-with-young-people/

44. Joanne Parkes, 2019a, Fiona Simpson, 2020a; John Plummer, 2020; Linkedin, 2020, ‘Mark Gifford’, https://uk.linkedin.com/in/mark-gifford-1a9a1215, accessed 30 March

45. NCVYS. (2013) ‘Youth Report 2013’

46. Fiona Simpson, 2020b,’Youth mutual EPIC folds due to government cuts’, CYPN, 25 March