Can National Citizen Service prevent a repeat of the riots?

The factors that fuelled the riots have not gone away

E-mail-sign-up Donate


Annika Olsen is a researcher at IPPR

As the anniversary of last year’s riots draws to a close, even Britain’s jubilant Olympic successes can’t fully mask widespread unease about whether enough has been done to prevent a repeat of last summer’s violence.

riotsTottenham MP David Lammy has warned that the factors that fuelled the riots have not gone away, citing problems with joblessness and gang culture across the UK.

A wall of police watched over this year’s Brixton Splash, the local event that last year saw young people break into, rob, and destroy shops and buildings in their own community.

In the wake of the riots, politicians on both the left and right floated the idea of a national civic service, highlighting long-standing arguments about how such schemes can impart young people with skills, create civic awareness, and promote social mixing across racial, class and intergenerational divides.

Motivated by similar goals, the government had already launched its National Citizen Service in the summer of 2011, with the stated purpose of promoting a more cohesive, responsible and active society.

Following last year’s riots, David Cameron announced his intention to expand the scheme – and last week the government announced its plan to offer it to 90,000 young people before 2014, up from 30,000 participants this year.

But to what extent is the government’s version of National Citizen Service capable of engaging young citizens and building stronger communities less prone to the sorts of underlying social problems that found a dramatic and violent expression in last year’s riots? To be sure, national service has the potential to meet these goals.

As philosopher Michael Sandel has suggested, obligatory universal national service – whether military or civic – tends to promote a type of citizenship characterised by ‘a sense of obligation for one’s fellow citizens, a willingness to sacrifice individual interests for the sake of the common good, and the ability to deliberate well about common purposes and ends.’

The revelation that Serco is likely to win a bid to take charge of delivering the programme, however, could have implications for the extent to which the programme can hope to achieve these civic goals.

IPPR has previously argued that we need to be much clearer about where outsourcing public services to private companies is and is not in the national interest.


See also:

Church report: Austerity created a “hopelessness” to blame for last summer’s riots 9 Jul 2012

Responding to the riots: We need more than fuzzy buzz words from the government 1 Apr 2012

UK riots: The “500,000 forgotten families” 27 Mar 2012


Particularly where services aim to promote public goods such as the values of citizenship, public spiritedness, and reciprocity, we must evaluate carefully whether private companies are compatible with the nature and purpose of the service. While a range of private and voluntary sector providers may be contracted to deliver local opportunities, a public authority should run the national programme. This wouldn’t rule out Serco from a role, but it would locate overall national authority and responsibility in the public sector.

Perhaps the biggest threat to the transformative potential of National Service is the scale of the scheme. As it stands, the programme is neither obligatory nor universal. Instead, it is a voluntary programme in which 16 to 17 year old participants engage in three weeks of full-time activities, followed by a set amount of local community work.

The preliminary results of an independent review suggest that the programme has been successful in improving participants’ communication, teamwork and leadership skills, but the results have been more mixed when it comes to generating social cohesion and community engagement.

Most worryingly, the reviewers found that because the programme’s participants are self-selected, it has mainly engaged those already evincing pro-social and voluntary behaviours. The realities of our current fiscal situation make a compulsory scheme, as some have called for, improbable in the near future.

But a programme with limited resources that reaches relatively low numbers of self-selecting young people will struggle to ensure participation by those young people most in need of civic education and social rootedness.

The existing scheme is a good start. But as it stands, it is unlikely to be the answer to the deep economic, social and political divisions underlying last year’s riots.


Sign-up to our weekly email • Donate to Left Foot Forward

Like this article? Sign up to Left Foot Forward's weekday email for the latest progressive news and comment - and support campaigning journalism by making a donation today. 

13 Responses to “Can National Citizen Service prevent a repeat of the riots?”

  1. LordBlagger

    Arbeit macht frei

  2. gt5g4

    we live in a multicultural society. one of those cultures rose up against the others – and not for the first time. I have no idea how you stop this from happening again but I expect it will happen again and our communities will just start gating themselves off from each other.

  3. treborc

    Yes your right.

  4. Freddie Flintoff

    I would do to Tottenham what the RAF did to Dresden. Pour encouarge les autres.

  5. Newsbot9

    Of course you would. Typical anti-British far right…

  6. Newsbot9

    One culture? You mean “everyone not part of your rich 1%”. And communities have already shut your thugs out, and stopped cooperating with the hostile police.

    You don’t have a clue how to stop it because you’re being wilfully blind.

  7. Newsbot9

    Ah yes, forcing poor people to work for free. The IPPR has evidently shifted to the right.

  8. Selohesra

    Do you never get bored of responding to every non-leftie comment on this site? – I reckon a good 25% of the comments here come from you

  9. Newsbot9

    Do you ever get bored of trolling?

  10. Selohesra

    I troll occaisionally if thats what you want to call it – you appear to be the self appointed guardian of the site determined to have last word with everyone. I suspect you are somehow in the pay of LFF trying to increase their advertising revenue by inflating their comment volume statistics.

  11. Newsbot9

    You spin a conspiracy theory, and constantly troll. Right.

  12. TristanPriceWilliams

    With respect, young people don’t need National Service. Most of them need jobs that make them tired, give them the satisfaction of a job well done, and pay them enough money to be able to join the world.

    They need not to live in filthy run down housing estates, where you can hear next door, or upstairs going for a pee,because the insulation is so bad.

    They need decent public services and they need some kind of hope that their lives won’t always be the bundle of misery that it is.
    A few examples of decency might help today’s youngsters to live a little bit more responsibly, but where are they going to get that?
    They need to be able to respect their country and government, which they can’t because too many of the politicians stole whatever they could lay their hands on. The royals are as bad and they go around being ostentatiously rich.
    They need to be able to trust and respect the police, but they can’t because they are either on the take from newspapers or they are racist, homophobic bullies, not to mention, in some cases, murderers.
    They might feel that trusting the church was some sort of an option, but so many churchmen are more worried about the horror of a woman or a gay man… or horror of horrors a lesbian, becoming a bishop, or they are in the choir room entertaining boys…
    Having to do something more for nothing, with the bitter feeling they are being used, and probably organised by one of the Tories’ friends, with the attendant cheating and fiddling that is so often a part of this kind of thing, is no substitute for having a job.
    With Osborne in charge of the economy, however, the reality is that this is unlikely to happen.

  13. treborc

    It depends on the housing, most council houses were of a higher standard then private houses, when I was building council housing during the 1970’s we had to satisfy building inspectors all day, while when building private houses we had no inspection until the house was finished.

    Again yes the police are a problem but hell tell me when they were not.

    Jobs 100% agree with you, sadly when we have no jobs around or councils are cutting back governments including labour come out with community free work like cleaning streets picking up litter.

    I know I’ve been through it.

Leave a Reply