National Citizen Service

Improving the UK Government’s National Citizen Service to boost youth citizenship

The political engagement of young people is vital to the future of the UK. Half a million 16 and 17 year olds have participated in the National Citizen Service (NCS) – a youth volunteering scheme that aims to improve “social mobility, social cohesion and social engagement”.

By helping to refine this Government-funded flagship youth programme – launched in 2011 – we have enabled better opportunities for young people to have their voice heard.

Our recommendations have led to improvements in the programme, reduced barriers to access, and significantly enhanced the Cabinet Office and Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s (DCMS) understanding of it.

Our impact

Tackling barriers to access

  • We coined the concept of the “hidden costs of social action” that bar many people from civic engagement – and recommended the provision of free or reduced cost bus travel for NCS participants from low income families, especially those in rural areas.

Ironing out regional disparities

  • The new NCS Quality Assurance framework ensures that all young people benefit from a comparable experience wherever they complete NCS, and youth-led social action is now a priority.

The ripple effect - a wider impact

  • Professor Mills' work has strengthened partnerships with the scheme via the youth charity sector, and enhanced wider understandings of youth citizenship within the Cabinet Office and DCMS.
  • She has delivered invited training webinars to external assessors on research findings and recommendations.
  • The Foreign and Commonwealth Office has invited her to share findings and recommendations with an international delegation from the All China Youth Federation.

The research

A prestigious ESRC Future Research Leader award supported Professor Mills’ unique analysis of the NCS, building on her previous studies of the geographies of youth citizenship and British youth movements. This enabled an analysis of NCS within a comparative historical and policy-relevant perspective.

Her three-year project examined three things – the state’s motivations for launching NCS, the voluntary sector’s engagement with the programme, and young people’s experiences of it.

The study comprised several research methods including an online survey of 400 NCS graduates, 61 qualitative interviews with participants and delivery partners, and ethnographic fieldwork.

Amongst her findings, Mills uncovered the significance of non-school spaces in nurturing citizenship and the positive impacts of NCS on teenagers’ lives and social integration. However, she also identified a postcode lottery in the regional variations of the NCS experience and revealed the hidden costs of social action for young people and their families.

She made 17 recommendations – and her expert opinion has been sought by the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement – improving the NCS programme for young people across the UK.

Sarah shared her research on the NCS in a way that really brought the whole topic to life. Her evidence led to a number of core recommendations being accepted by Government. I know the committee were overwhelmed by her contribution.

Professor Matthew Flinders Special Advisor to the House of Lords Select Committee on Citizenship and Civic Engagement

Research funders

  • ESRC

Development partners

  • The National Citizen Service