A key youth scheme launched by David Cameron is attracting just twelve percent of the teens eligible to take part - despite receiving hundreds of millions in government funding.
The National Citizen Service was unveiled in 2010 by the then-Prime Minister, who hailed it as a “kind of non-military national service” that would teach young people “what it means to be socially responsible” through four-week volunteering stints.
Since quitting as prime minister, Cameron has gone on to take up a job as chair of the scheme's panel of patrons, urging all teenagers to see the NCS as a “rite of passage”.
But analysis by the Local Government Association, the umbrella group for councils, says only a small number of the 15-17 year-olds eligible to take part in the initiative have done so, while cash-strapped local authorities have been forced to close locally-run services.
According to the LGA, the government spent £634m – or 95% of its overall youth services budget – on the NCS between 2014/15 and 2017/18.
But the council group says that just 12% of those eligible to take part did so in 2016, while take-up was as low as 4% in some areas.
Meanwhile, locally-run youth services have been “significantly scaled back”, the LGA says, with central government cuts leading them to slash spending from £650m in 2010/11 to just £390m from 2016/17.
The group wants councils to be given more control of the money currently going to the NCS so that they can make up for the steep cuts in local youth services.
Anntoinette Bramble, a Labour councillor who chairs the LGA’s Children and Young People Board, said the NCS could be “a positive experience for those who take part”.
But she urged ministers to make plans for a “much wider youth service offering to support children and young people”.
Bramble added: “Councils have been forced to cut important services for thousands of young residents in recent years as a result of increasingly squeezed budgets, so it is wrong that nearly all of the government’s funding for youth services is being spent on a very short programme which attracts only a small number of participants.
“The government needs to devolve a slice of the funding to councils so they can begin to scale back the cuts to council youth services and provide targeted support to a much wider group of young people locally all year round, whether that is giving them safe spaces to meet, diverting them away from crime or supporting them to succeed in school, training or employment.”
But a spokesperson for the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport – which oversees the NCS – said the scheme had “improved the lives of 400,000 young people in disadvantaged areas across the country”.
They added: “In addition, we are investing £80m of exchequer and lottery funding on projects for young people. This includes opening new youth clubs, improving mental health support services and encouraging young people to take part in volunteering.”