Tuesday, 15 May 2012

National citizen servant

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Although set up just three years ago, The Challenge Network will this year be the largest single provider of the government’s flagship National Citizen Service scheme.

A total of 30,000 places for 16-year-olds will be available over the summer, with a third of them to be delivered by the fledgling social enterprise. It is a rapid rise for both the organisation and its chief executive and co-founder Craig Morley, but one that isn’t entirely without controversy.

Links to social reform business The Shaftesbury Partnership – which was co-founded by Tory peer and former big society tsar Nat Wei, and actually developed the NCS concept – have led to accusations of cronyism.

While acknowledging the link, Morley is quick to dispel any suggestion that his organisation is prospering as a result of friends in high places.

“We have a very strong track record and it is on that basis we have been successful to date,” he says calmly. “There is no, and never has been, a legal relationship between the Shaftesbury Partnership and The Challenge Network.

“Myself and the two other co-founders were working on freelance contracts there for four months while we were doing research to see if there was a strong enough concept and demand to set up The Challenge Network. We did the research, funded it, and set it up.”

Government funding
Morley puts the venture’s burgeoning levels of government funding – it received £7m in 2011 – down to the design of the programme and results so far.

“For the first two years we had no central government money at all,” he says. “It was only in 2011, and this summer coming that we are being funded in large parts by Cabinet Office grants. For those grants there was a highly competitive open tendering process involving hundreds of organisations.”

Morley took an unconventional route into working with young people. He embarked on a career in business after graduating from the University of Sheffield where he studied politics and economics, spending time in finance and sales with mining company Rio Tinto and consumer-goods giant Proctor & Gamble.

He became increasingly interested in working with young people when, during a business meeting, he heard that the Prince’s Trust was looking for mentors.

He took up the opportunity and carried on working in the business world but increasingly “found most satisfaction and enjoyment came from working voluntarily”. “It came to a point where I wanted to make volunteering the central thrust of the rest of my career,” he says.

Experience from the business world has come in handy in running a charity, he admits, but setting up a not-for-profit organisation was “far harder” than he ever imagined.

“Some of my friends at the time said, ‘you’re going to run a charity, that’ll be nice and easy’,” he says. “The truth is I have never worked harder in my life but never felt so fulfilled either. The fight for resources and funds is very hard. To grow quickly, with no particular amount of certainty has been difficult but I am very proud of where we have got to so far.”

Results so far appear impressive, with The Challenge boasting high levels of retention rates in contrast to a snapshot survey of providers by CYP Now last year, which found a one-in-four dropout rate for the entirety of the scheme.

The retention rate for the full-time residential element of The Challenge programme ran at 96 per cent last summer, with 90 per cent of those starting the programme going on to complete a further 30 hours of community-based projects.

“We found that once young people start the programme the vast majority stay through right to graduation,” he says. “The challenge is how you inspire and support a representative mix of young people to start. Once they start it they stay because it is fun and because of the consistency of the teams; it’s that relationship that keeps retention so high.”

Morley believes retention on the scheme is aided by charging young people to take part, a concept that came under attack from the education select committee last year, which said it would deter young people from low-income families from participating.

“I feel it’s important there’s a small symbolic contribution – it places a value on the programme and stops places getting wasted,” he says. “It shouldn’t be a barrier though. Last year, one in five children taking part in The Challenge were registered for free school meals, slightly above the national average, and were able to pay. That suggests financial reasons are not the reason for people not going on the programme.

“Evidence over the years shows that when young people make a contribution, it makes them much more likely to turn up because there is some kind of commitment.”

Concept criticism
The NCS concept has come in for wider criticism from some quarters amid concerns over its cost and inherent value, particularly in light of cuts to local authority youth services. But Morley is convinced of what it can achieve.

He points to the success in recruiting young people from a variety of schools and upbringings as evidence of the programme’s value to society. Of the 3,100 young people taking part through The Challenge last summer, the mix of social and ethnic backgrounds broadly matched the profiles of the urban areas from which young people were recruited.

In total, 55 per cent of those taking part were girls and 45 per cent were boys. Moreover, 50 per cent were non-white, two per cent said they were looked-after – double the national average – and one per cent were in a pupil referral unit or special school.

Morley is clearly proud of these figures. Indeed, he appears to see the work of his organisation as being more a driver of social change than a form of youth work. “We are not a youth charity, we are a community charity,” he says. “Statistics over the last few years show that levels of trust and sense of belonging have declined in the UK in the past 50 years. That is a big concern for our society. We are, in our own small way, trying to address that. We are trying to bring people together in an intensive way from different backgrounds to reduce those divides. They find they have a lot more in common than what divides them and good things can flow from that.”

The key to maintaining the programme and stimulating social change lies with appealing to local partners and working to engage the young people themselves, he says.

“We have to spend a lot of time and care supporting people to make sure they can access the programme,” he explains. “Our aim is to work with every school, pupil referral unit and special school. All NCS providers are increasingly aware that that kind of investment in the ‘pre-programme’ is absolutely essential.

“Success in this is down to not only creating an engaging programme, but also developing relationships with local authorities. We are increasingly finding we have a good relationship with local authorities. They can and do refer young people. And, vice versa, if young people have a strong experience we can support the transition to youth work at the end of the programme.”

Morley says the rate of growth of The Challenge will “slow considerably” next year, with more focus being placed on growing The Challenge Society, which is the organisation’s “graduate programme”.

All of those who graduate from The Challenge are invited to get involved in The Challenge Society – an ongoing year-round stream of activities and events to bring them back together and involved with community-based youth work.

This can include charity work and workshops to boost employability skills. “For us, if everything is the same once they have finished the NCS, it is a huge waste of potential,” Morley says. “We want to build on that and make sure that enthusiasm is carried forward. For us there’s no point without the follow-on.”

Craig Morley CV

  • Morley went to school in West Sussex before studying economics and politics at Sheffield University from 1990 to 1993
  • He worked at Proctor & Gamble, in London, Newcastle, Morocco and Surrey in sales and finance until 2000
  • He then spent five years at Marakon Associates in a consultancy role, before joining mining company Rio Tinto for two years
  • From 2008 to 2009, he worked on a part-time education project with ARK Schools, now one of the country’s leading academy operators
  • He co-founded The Challenge Network in 2009, alongside Doug Fraley and Jon Yates, and is the chief executive
  • His interests include sailing, cooking, travel and hiking
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