National Citizen Service cuts ties with largest provider

The National Citizen Service has announced it will ditch its largest provider of summer school programmes from next year, after a dispute over shared IT systems and following an incident which saw 4,000 pupils miss out on places.

The NCS, a flagship government scheme which organises outward-bound trips and community work for 15 to 17-year-olds in school holidays, will no longer work with The Challenge, one of its founding partners, from 2020.

We were surprised to see this public statement as it relates to an ongoing negotiation between our two organisations

The NCS insists the move will not affect its ability to offer places this year or next.

However, The Challenge, which was founded by Jon Yates, until recently an adviser to former education secretary Damian Hinds, said it was “surprised” by the announcement, as it believed it was still in negotiations with the NCS over its contract.

Accounts show that The Challenge spent more than £66 million providing NCS activities in 2016-17. The organisation’s work for the NCS, which covers London, the south east and the West Midlands, is its main source of income.

In a statement, the NCS said it had been “unable to reach an agreement with the charity over a contractual requirement to use a shared IT system that ensures value for money, improves customer experience and protects young people’s data”.

The charity also had concerns because around 4,000 pupils were “let down by The Challenge because they weren’t allocated a place on their chosen programme” this year.

“We need to ensure a consistent customer experience, secure value for money for the taxpayer and safeguard the data of the young people who take part. That’s why our contracts stipulate that all partners use a single shared IT platform,” said Michael Lynas, the chief executive of the NCS trust.

“Unfortunately, since The Challenge is unwilling to use this important system, which is successfully used by all other partners in the NCS network, we are unable to award contracts. As the commissioning body, entrusted with selecting the best organisations to safely deliver NCS while offering value for public money, this decision is the best way for us to continue to achieve these aims.”

The move follows sustained criticism of the NCS from public figures over the way it spends government funding.

In 2017, it was revealed that the NCS Trust paid an estimated £10 million for places not filled the previous year. That same year, the government was forced to issue guidance to schools encouraging them to get more involved with the programme, after it repeatedly missed its own recruitment targets. Original plans to force schools to promote the scheme were abandoned by the government.

Last year, the NCS was further admonished after its rent ballooned by more than ten-fold to over £1 million last year, following a move to new offices in West Kensington.

The NCS has pledged to reach 360,000 youngsters by 2020. In 2017, it reached just 98,000.

In its statement, the NCS said The Challenge “remains contracted to delivering summer and autumn NCS programmes in 2019 until their contract ends in December”.

A recommissioning process “to improve the programme and value for money is now nearing completion”.

From next year, the NCS Trust will also directly manage “more regionally focused providers” in London, the north east and south west.

A spokesperson for The Challenge told Third Sector magazine: “On July 31, the NCS Trust issued a statement regarding 2020 contracts for NCS provision and The Challenge.

“We were surprised to see this public statement as it relates to an ongoing negotiation between our two organisations as to how we may be able to resolve certain issues in order that we can continue to provide first-class, value-for-money NCS provision.

“The Challenge remains committed to the values of social integration through the provision of NCS to young people across the UK. It is important and necessary work.”