A national skills programme has boosted the number of young people from the poorest backgrounds going to university by 50%, new analysis shows.
The National Citizen Service (NCS), first announced in 2010 as part of David Cameron’s Big Society initiative, received Royal Assent last week.
The programme gives 15 to 17-year-olds the chance to take part in a week-long Outward-Bound style experience, before living away from home in a university halls setting for a further week.
Blogging for Huff Post UK today, NCS board member Lord Blunkett says the scheme - which costs £50 to take part, with busaries available for low-income families - has played a huge role in closing the gap between teenagers growing up in poverty and their peers.
“NCS allows 16-year-olds from different schools and different backgrounds to come together in common purpose. Rich, poor, black, white, Muslim, Christian: it doesn’t matter your background, on NCS you are welcome as a fellow citizen,” he writes.
“As young people seek to learn life skills, including learning about themselves, where power lies and how society operates through citizenship education, they also gain enormously from direct contact in what is described as active citizenship.”
The former Labour Home Secretary said the programme highlights the ‘challenges’ which should be at the heart of next month’s election and hopes it will improve ‘worryingly low’ voter turnout among young people.
“Whatever the outcome on June 9, it is certain that it will be the giving of time and commitment, the rebuilding of community and the counterweight of civil society to the predominance of any political party, which will provide the glue to hold our society together,” he writes.
“I hope NCS will be able to play a significant part in that process.”
In March, the Office for National Statistics released new data that showed that 16 to 24-year-olds had moved from being the age group that volunteered least in 2000, to the age group volunteering most in 2015.
Lord Blunkett said the figures were ‘a remarkable testament’ to the impact of the scheme on the 300,000 teenagers who have so far taken part.
“As a member of the House of Lords I am one of the few people in our country constitutionally barred from voting in the upcoming general election,” he said.
“This doesn’t mean I don’t have a view, quite the opposite, but it does make me well placed to make a plea to remember what binds us together, not just what drives us apart.
“The age we are living in, and the electoral season we are entering, accentuates division. If you have to communicate in 140 characters, it is no wonder that nuanced debate about complex issues is increasingly taking a back seat to shrill and angry point scoring.”
The NCS bill will shortly receive a Royal Charter, cementing its place as a national institution, and Lord Blunkett said he was ‘proud’ Labour had backed the bill as it moved through Parliament.
“NCS was not my idea, and although I had 20 years ago initiated Millennium Volunteers and the funding of Outward Bound initiatives, this particular programme did not spring from an initiative of my political party,” he added.
“But it represents a fundamental investment in the future of our country, building strong foundations and knitting together the bonds that tie us together as citizens.”