Justin Tomlinson (North Swindon, Conservative)
With great pleasure, I shall take the opportunity to discuss expanding the opportunities of the national citizenship scheme. The scheme is aimed at 16 to 17-year-olds from different backgrounds to provide an opportunity to make a difference in their local community. Last year, 8,000 young people took part, and the ambition is to extend the scheme to all 16 to 17-year-olds. With that in mind, I want to set out what I saw during the summer recess and what I hope to see in much greater numbers in the future.
The scheme gives young people from all backgrounds valuable life experience, as it takes them away from home and gets them to work together. It builds confidence and skills, including teamwork and communication skills. Crucially, it improves employability. During the summer recess, I visited the National Citizen Service schemes in Swindon on no fewer than five occasions, covering each and every stage of the process, from the outdoor and planning stages to projects in action and, ultimately, the graduation ceremony.
Across the constituencies of North Swindon and South Swindon, 43 young people from Swindon college and 27 people from New college took part. The teams enjoyed a week at PGL Liddington, during which they learned survival skills, though I note that when I went along and offered my great expertise, they promptly, and probably rightly, ignored everything that I suggested. They also went camping in Weymouth ahead of the Olympics.
Then the two colleges split into four teams. Each chose a distinctive local issue that mattered to them, and on which they wanted to make a difference. I went to visit as they prepared to make a difference with their projects. The first team supported the community games tour, which was inspired by the Olympics. The team took over the publicity and promotion relating to that local project, which was run by Swindon borough council to encourage young people to try new sports. I visited the Meadowcroft fields in Upper Stratton, where the team encouraged young people to take part in dodgeball. We MPs are often asked to participate in things that might be mildly embarrassing, and that we would rather not do, but I was very keen to do this. I was excited to take part in dodgeball. “DodgeBall”, a comedy, is one of my favourite films. Unfortunately, a very professional five-year-old managed to take me down within about 10 seconds, so my experience of dodgeball has not led to much. The team cleverly split up into groups handling print media, social media, and leaflet design. A lot of young people got to participate in new sports that they would not otherwise have tried.
The second team supported the Swindon food bank—the Swindon branch of the food banks run by a national charity. They organised a fundraising concert featuring local young musicians and bands, and made fundraising appeals at local supermarkets. That was inspired by the fact that some of the group had received help in the past from the food bank; they were keen to help get their colleagues to put something back into that very good charity.
The third team supported the Swindon special care baby unit. They had organised a sponsored sleep-out, locked in the New college grounds. It meant spending
24 hours sleeping in a cardboard box, with just a sandwich to eat. I asked whether any of them were going to smuggle in their mobile phone, so that they could text their parents to ask them to drop off a sneaky McDonald’s, but they assured me that they were committed to the cause. They raised a considerable amount of money.
The final team supported the women’s refuge by bag-packing in local supermarkets. They showed amazing maturity and confidence in negotiating with national retail giants to get permission to do that bag-packing. Again, one of the team members was living in the women’s refuge, and she was able to use that to get all the other students to understand how that organisation can help. The team raised valuable funds.
The hard work, dedication and enthusiasm that the young people showed for their projects, and for Swindon, is reflected in the reaction of those whom they helped. Lee Thompson, the project manager at the Swindon food bank, said:
“The first thing that struck me was their enthusiasm and their obvious enjoyment in participating in the scheme. They were certainly brimming with ideas of how to help Swindon Foodbank.
The students’ action has made a direct difference in their community. The money they raised enabled us to buy 157 kilos of food, enough to provide 196 meals or two days worth of food for the foodbank.
At a time when teenagers get bad publicity regarding their selfish attitude to society, the NCS students at New College changed my view and I hope that the scheme can be expanded as I feel it goes a long way to making well rounded citizens of the future.”
The scheme has benefited not just Swindon but the students. Lynn Wilkinson, who led the scheme at New college, said:
“The NCS program highlighted and enhanced the skills of a diverse range of young people with project planning and implementation, and…a little effort, determination and self belief. Each individual proved that they had the skills, determination and passion to help the communities of Swindon.”
The scheme has given the young people real-life experience, as well as teamwork and leadership skills—practical skills of real use to employers. I know that, because before I became an MP, I had a business employing young people, and we would get deluged with CVs. The sorts of skills that we are talking about could set these young people apart from the hundreds of other people who might be applying for opportunities—opportunities that young people now have to fight to get. It was a real credit to the young people that they took advantage of the scheme. Richie Titcombe, a New college student, said:
“I intend to follow a career in public services, I have used the NCS programme to enhance my CV and the chances of gaining an insight into charity work or work for supporting services. All in all I worked with a great team with clear goals, directed by the NCS staff whose experience and dedication gave me a new outlook on supporting my community and how a little goes a long way.”
Crucially, not only did the students gain new skills, improve their CV and help their community but they enjoyed the experience. A study said that 92% of people who took part last year would recommend the scheme to friends, which certainly seems to be the case in Swindon. When I went to the graduation ceremony,
students were overwhelmingly enthusiastic about their experience—they had gained the skills that I have discussed and made new friends—and, crucially, they did not intend it to be a one-off. Many of them wished to continue to help, either with the organisations with which they were involved or other organisations. They were all determined to encourage next year’s students to take advantage of the scheme. Their parents were incredibly proud of their children’s efforts. They were giving up their summer holidays, but they came along and beamed with pride at the graduation ceremony.
Francis Oakland, another New college student said:
“Great fun!! Taught me to stand on my feet and chased away a few fears, I would recommend it to all my friends just for the people you meet. You learn to get over petty frustrations and how to work and co-operate with others. A big thanks from me.”
It is vital that we continue to expand the scheme and invest in the skills of our young people, helping to prepare them for life beyond school. I welcome the funding tranche of £2 million that has been announced for next year’s scheme. However, Swindon college in particular is concerned that it has not been told when it can begin recruiting or the numbers for which it will be funded. It needs that information so that it can plan for next year, so I urge Ministers to provide all that information and let my colleges, which are desperate to lead on this, do so.
I am delighted that the students who graduated this year—only two did not complete the course, which is staggering, given that they gave up their free time—have already selected 10 Swindon ambassadors, who will go to many of the national events—I believe that they are coming to Downing street to fly the flag for Swindon—and enthuse next year’s intake.
As a final plea, I urge people to work with excellent organisations such as the Scouts, other volunteer organisations, sports clubs and so on, which are short of volunteers. There is a genuine opportunity for them to pitch to those students before they graduate to say, “You have made a real difference in your local community. We have programmes so that you can take that to the next level and continue to make a real difference.” This is a positive story, and we should all do everything that we can to encourage more young people to benefit from the scheme.