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Education is very important for the prosperity of our society and for growth, innovation and progress in Europe. The swift changes and the transformation of today’s world represent a big challenge for the education system that needs to adapt constantly to socio-economic changes of society. Today’s education system needs to be a match for the demands of the 21st century, which result in perpetual life-learning processes, in mobility and in challenges for the global knowledge-based economy.
There are various factors that influence these transformative processes and economic factors are accorded a leading role in these transformations of the education processes. The latter, of course, are the ones that push all layers of society to adapt to these transformations. Economic factors affect the younger generation in general and related vulnerable population groups in particular, such as young people ‘Not in Education, Employment, or Training’ (NEETs), early school leavers, young migrants, and more broadly formulated young people with fewer opportunities.
Currently the European Union is still suffering from the economic crisis and recession. The consequences of the financial and economic crisis have had a dramatic impact on the situation of young people looking for a job. Unemployment amongst young people is hitting highs not seen for almost 20 years and the risk of poverty and social exclusion amongst this population group is constantly increasing.
The principle of “Education for life” and the application of a number of corresponding innovative approaches to bring education up to date can provide Europe with the tools to overcome this trend. The added value that non-formal education can give to our developing and growing society can become a strong instrument to address youth unemployment. This added value can take the form of providing all groups of our population with new skills, competences, tangible experience and valuable knowledge. So what is the potential and what are the perspectives of non-formal education for the future of youth?
Non-formal education acknowledges the importance of lifelong learning and training outside of the recognized and established educational system. For people who find themselves outside of the formal educational system, this form of education is obviously more significant than the education that occurs inside of formal settings. In the case under consideration, the first type of education mentioned can function better, can be more flexible and can be more tightly focused on its target group. It can also be considered as a reinforcing and supporting element of lifelong learning processes.
Non-formal education can take different forms and can include catching-up programs for school dropouts, seminars, forums, development initiatives including health education and literacy promotion and civic education preparing for active citizenship. As a voluntary, participatory and learner-centered process, non-formal education can take place in a diverse range of environments and situations that can be staffed by professional learning facilitators and by volunteers. It can be based on involving individual and collective process-oriented approaches based on experience and action and applied in different contexts. And what is more tangible is that non-formal education can provide and improve a range of broader life skills and competencies needed and valued in the labor market right now.
This set of skills and competencies include better communication, team work, decision-making, cultural and language skills, sense of initiative, confidence and entrepreneurial skills. They can be developed and acquired through involvement in non-formal educational activities. For young people who participate in non-formal activities abroad, this set of skills can also include a more pronounced development of intercultural and language skills. All these qualifications are especially valued by employers when young people lack formal working experience. In that case a participation in non-formal activities can contribute to the successful transition of young people from education to the labor market. It can positively influence the employability of young people and secure them a better access to the labor market.
Moreover, the participation in various non-formal activities can result in developing a valuable social capital, in an increase of mobility and in creating or opening new vocational paths. The latter are especially important for the more vulnerable groups of people such as early school leavers, young people with fewer opportunities, young migrants, and young people ‘Not in Education, Employment, or Training.’
The methods that are used in non-formal education also help young people to acquire new skills and competencies. They put the individual in the focus of the learning process and foster the individual’s personal and social development. Such methods contribute to a better engagement and motivation of individuals throughout the learning process. Furthermore, young people practice “learning by doing” through voluntary work and other participatory activities. Learning based on real life situations that actively engage an individual in the learning process becomes more efficient and skill-oriented.
Through the interaction via people-to-people contact individual learners acquire valuable interpersonal and management skills such as teamwork, leadership, project management, practical problem solving and ICT skills. These skills are valuable for both personal development and for the labor market. They can not only contribute to the employability, but can empower young people to set up their own start-ups and companies.
These capabilities - when considered in an international context - can create a strong basis for intercultural learning and multi-ethnic dialogue that complement the “hard knowledge” skills acquired through formal education. And when these skills are shared with people from different countries, they become even more tangible. Young people develop a sense of community beyond the national boundaries of their home country. They improve and acquire language skills and develop a sense of solidarity, respect and tolerance that encourages young people to reflect upon their cultural identity and common values such as human rights, equality, freedoms. It can be extremely beneficial for the individual learners and young people who not only acquire needed skills and competences for the labor market but also become more informed and broad-minded.
So, taking in consideration all mentioned points, I can state that this form of education has a tendency to adapt to the needs of the labor market and that it has an ability to meet social changes and life needs of young people. That is why non-formal education has to be supported more through different channels and through various legal and financial instruments.
One such key instrument for non-formal learning and education is the ‘Youth in Action’ program. This program aims to enhance employability of young people with fewer opportunities, i.e. young people ‘Not in Education, Employment, or Training.’ And it contributes to their active citizenship and social inclusion, regardless of their educational, social and cultural background. Through different projects funded by ‘Youth in Action,’ every year more than 150,000 young people and youth workers are involved in a large number of non-formal education activities across and beyond the European Union.
From my point of view, in order to enhance non-formal education in Europe, the best practices of non-formal education activities via youth work should be widely spread. The European Parliament is an example for a best practice of youth work. Through the work of the ‘Youth Intergroup’ the European Parliament is organizing a wide range of discussions, seminars and events involving young democratic leaders, young researchers and young workers. These organized activities help young people to improve their civic knowledge and to elaborate their active citizenship position, which is very important ahead of the elections to the European Parliament in May 2014.
In conclusion, I would like to state that a non-formal education can have a significant impact on achieving a reasonable, sustainable and inclusive development for the Europe 2020 Strategy. It can play a tremendous role in addressing the issue of skills shortages and in supporting economic recovery of Europe. This form of education can be helpful in the modernization of education and can provide young people with high-valued skills, abilities and knowledge. In addition, these skills, which are acquired through the practice of youth work during participation in non-formal education activities, can help to promote social inclusion and contribute to the personal development of young people in general.
For the member states of the European Union this form of education is a key element for adapting to the socio-economic conditions of today’s developing society and world. This is the form of education of choice for a better and more prosperous future for the young generation.
Justina Vitkauskaite Bernard is a Lithuanian member of the European Parliament