“Today, there are so many opportunities for young people to go abroad. Spending time in another country pushes them out of their comfort zone and helps them to open up to unfamiliar things,” said Anne Sorge-Farner, coordinator of the working group behind the Aktionsbündnis initiative, as the two-day conference began. The shortcomings in the system, Sorge-Farner continued, have nothing to do with the key skills that young people learn while abroad - they concern the lack of recognition in society of the young people’s achievements. And with that, the agenda for the meeting had been set. Facilitator Christian Baier then announced the format of what was now to come. This would be an “open space” event, organised by the participants themselves. Selecting this very open format made sense in two ways at once: it accounted for the diversity of organisations attending the meeting, with representatives from non-formal and formal education, child and youth services organisations and civil society groups; and it left it entirely up to the participants how they wished to approach the subject of recognition.
And so the participants’ list of desired topics on the agenda was very varied indeed, ranging from educational assistance abroad and inclusive youth work to a realignment of international youth work. Some agenda items reflected an urgent need to have expert-level discussions; others were an attempt to create a shared interpretation of the subject of recognition. Either way, this was an excellent way to approach recognition as a topic of discussion.
Various dimensions of recognition
In one session, led by Anne Sorge-Farner, participants discussed the possibility of issuing a declaration calling for more recognition. This idea was originally developed in Slovakia, specifically the Slovak youth institute IUVENTA, with several youth work organisations drawing up a paper that was signed by several stakeholders and which called for cooperation and collaboration on the recognition of non-formal and informal learning achievements. But what needs to be recognised, and by whom? Various answers were proposed in the course of the discussion: personal recognition for the young peoples’ individual achievements and acquired skills; recognition by society of the matter at large, the recognition of the international character of larger organisations (which relates to organisational development); and recognition by policymakers and the private sector, possibly with strings attached. Is there anything that the organisations themselves need to do? Uniform quality standards maybe, a pledge to maintain certain standards, a quality charter even?
In another session, participants looked for existing good practices in the shape of recognition schemes, but also for initiatives that help to make the benefits of international youth work more visible. A project involving digital “badges” was presented, along with the well-known recognition schemes YouthPass and Nachweise International. Kulturweit, a volunteering organisation, pointed out the possibility of gaining recognition through continued training for its alumni. The Bavarian Youth Council presented a very low-threshold method to reflect on one’s newly acquired skills by keeping a diary. How formal does a recognition document need to be to impress potential employers? What educational framework should it reflect for it to remain true to the character of youth work? Some participants preferred a standardised product that is universally known; others feared that a standardised scheme would not be applicable to all fields and impact on its practical usability.
What partners are needed? What measures have to be taken?
“What other partners need to join the effort?” was a question raised in yet another session. This was a cross-cutting issue that appeared again and again whenever the discussion turned to the social impact of the proposed Action Alliance. Private-sector business associations, said some, pointing out the need to develop recognition instruments for the transition from school to working life in the context of youth social work. “The schools need to be on board too,” suggested Susanne Schwarzenberg from Pädagogischer Austauschdienst, a public organisation to promote international exchange and cooperation in the school sector. Hans Brandner from JUGEND für Europa agreed and referred to the existence of a Bund-Länder working group on the implementation of the EU Youth Strategy, an interface to the education policies of Germany’s federal states. “International youth work has to figure on the university curriculum,” Brandtner added.
The second half of the day was given over to more hands-on issues. The participants were free to decide what areas they want to continue working on, and what steps they want to take. Some opted to strengthen the partnership between schools and non-school organisations, some chose to improve the visibility of the gains of international youth work, others preferred to continue lobbying at the political level and more. If anyone thought that the discussions so far had been too general to have any effect, they were now pleasantly surprised. The final session was infused by a strong sense of optimism and agreement among participants. There was much positive feedback on having had an opportunity to talk to fellow experts and strengthen connections, and everyone felt hopeful that over the two-year project term it will be possible to work towards helping international youth work to make a genuine leap forward. The first step has been taken.
A documentation pack on the Open Space session, including a full set of results and a list of further projects, can be downloaded here: http://www.buendnis-anerkennung.de/app/download/12800512735/Dokumentation-Gesamt_Aktionsbuendnis.pdf?t=1457518131
Feedback on the event
We want to bring formal and non-formal education together
Irene Joos, Robert Bosch Stiftung
Interview mit Irene Joos, Robert Bosch Stiftung
Ms Joos, why has Robert Bosch Stiftung decided to support the kick-off event for the Action Alliance?
Irene Joos: Over a year ago we set up a new priority area, international education. We did this because we feel that all young people should have an opportunity to go abroad. One priority for us is to upscale international school and youth exchanges and raise awareness of how valuable these international experiences are - for the young participants themselves, for society at large, and ultimately also for international understanding.
Robert Bosch Stiftung can offer a platform for dialogue and bring together various stakeholders. We are also supporters of Austausch macht Schule, an initiative to strengthen international school exchanges. By contrast, the Action Alliance focuses on non-formal education. Bringing these two sides together would lift a lot of potential.
What’s your impression of the conference? Was this a good start?
Irene Joos: International youth work is a very broad field with a wide variety of formats and many different stakeholders, each with their own aims and perspectives. So it’s no surprise that there was an urgent need to sit down and exchange opinions. Despite this diversity of approaches, it was clear that the participants all shared one aim, namely to enable as many young people as possible to enjoy a life-changing experience. It was heartening to see that in the end, real progress was made and participants took some initial steps together.
You just mentioned the diversity of the international youth work field. Among the actors in this area are a number of large organisations whose remit goes beyond international projects. Their primary aim is rather to make the field more international, which to them is a mark of quality. How do you feel about internationalising the child and youth services field?
Irene Joos: One of our priorities is to put international exchanges within reach of target groups that are currently underrepresented. The question is, how can this be done? One way is for organisations that already work at the national level with these target groups to open up to the idea of international exchanges.
That aside, we are convinced that internationalisation is beneficial for all organisations, whether youth work organisations or schools, and has a positive impact on their organisational development.
I’d like to see a formal framework and firm structures
Alexander Hauser, Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Katholische Jugendsozialarbeit BAGKJS
Interview mit Alexander Hauser, Bundesarbeitsgemeinschaft Katholische Jugendsozialarbeit BAGKJS
Mr Hauser, what’s your impression after two days of discussions about recognition?
Alexander Hauser: The discussions were initially a bit unstructured – some general issues surrounding international youth work had to be cleared up – but then they turned to the actual subject at hand. We discussed what levels of recognition we want. Recognition given to young people? To organisations? Or recognition by employers? I’d also like to see international youth work being recognised by larger organisations that have a more general approach to youth work, such as youth social work organisations. How can we communicate international youth work as a mark of quality and get these organisations to recognise it as such?
Are these different levels maybe two sides of the same coin?
Alexander Hauser: Of course the two belong together. That’s an insight we had to establish and firm up before moving on. Recognition in this sense ranges from more formal recognition right up to “moral” recognition, as I would call it. I’d like to see a formal framework and firm structures. When young people apply for a job, they need to have some way to sell the fact that they acquired valuable skills during a stay abroad or a youth exchange. For that to happen, we need a culture of recognition at the political and local level. Of course that’s an attitude that is typical of the youth social work community. I see a big difference between the approaches of organisations that exclusively deal in international exchanges and those of organisations that have a broader focus, where we strive to establish more international and European awareness. For instance, the young people who come from all over Europe to Germany to train and work here to fill the skilled labour gap, are a major target group for us. They need to be prepared for what awaits them here. We need to assist these young newcomers – and protect them, too.
Wouldn’t a formalised recognition system directly contradict the valuable voluntary character of non-formal education?
Alexander Hauser: Youth social workers likely have a different opinion on the matter. Try seeing the issue through the eyes of young people, especially those with fewer opportunities. They are the ones we want to reach out to. For them, the benefits of an international exchange are much greater than for others. They gain confidence, acquire intercultural skills and try out their foreign language skills. Young people don’t have much more to offer on their CVs than a school-leaving qualification. If they’ve taken part in an international exchange, that counts for something and I have no problem with them trying to sell that to a potential employer. Many young people we deal with are part of the immigrant community so they already have intercultural and language skills. They have experienced mobility and that deserves to be recognised. That said, young members of the immigrant community suffer from limited mobility in the same way their native peers do. They barely venture beyond their familiar surroundings. The mobility they experience with us is a major asset for them, and potential employers are aware of this. After all, it’s no coincidence that internships abroad are also a part of Erasmus+.
The declaration is the first leg of the journey
Gunnar Grüttner, Deutsches Jugendherbergswerk e.V.
Interview with Gunnar Grüttner, German Youth Hostel Association
Mr Grüttner, what is to be recognised and by whom?
Gunnar Grüttner: We ought to start by selecting the partners we want to join the Action Alliance and discussing who our target audience is. Who do we expect to do what? Who needs to be brought on board? There’s various levels to consider here: the needs of the community itself; recognition on a personal level for young people; and finally, the recognition of non-formal qualifications and skills by employers and the formal education sector. Some partners might be surprised if we reach out to them – business associations for instance, or the Federal Employment Agency. As a colleague quite succinctly put it during the debate earlier, before young people cross borders, we need to cross them first and find new partners.
Why is the German Youth Hostel Association interested in recognition?
Gunnar Grüttner: We’re not just an infrastructure provider that makes sure that the rooms are clean and breakfast is put on the table. We’re not a hotel chain, we’re a non-profit organisation and a child and youth services provider. We offer international exchange opportunities and educational programmes, and that’s why we’re interested. The recognition issue is one close to our heart. Besides, we have member organisations, such as the German Federal Youth Council and the umbrella associations for local authorities. They are valuable contributors to the Association and function as an interface to civil society. At the Länder and regional levels, things are no different.
At the conference there was talk of adopting a declaration as a way to inaugurate the Action Alliance. When would you like to see that happen?
Gunnar Grüttner: Generally I am all for ambitious timelines. That would force us to exercise some discipline in this important matter, and a bit of pressure would be good for productivity. So I’d like to see this happen within a year rather than five years. Building an Action Alliance is a major venture and shouldn’t get buried under our day-to-day work. Either way, I consider a declaration to be only the first leg of the journey. It’s not the end, it’s the beginning.