Our school system has a lot to learn from youth work sector
In my opinion... Steven Daly
I wish Ireland had an education system that was truly centered on the learner, that had the needs of young people at its heart. Not one that is dominated by testing a student's ability to learn by rote. But an education system that was meeting the needs of the learner as they developed.
Many say that our schools, especially at second level, have not achieved these goals. We are inclined to look to our international neighbours as sources of inspiration for education reform. But in looking abroad, we neglect an exemplar closer to home.
The 'youth sector', 'youth clubs', or what is often called the 'informal' education system, is too often ignored in conversations about how we address the educational needs of our young people.
'Youth club', 'youth worker', and 'youth centre', all conjure up images of after-school clubs for kids to hang around, play pool, and be kept off the streets of the local estate. Far from the truth.
Ireland is home to one of the most professionalised youth services in the world. It engages over 380,000 young people every year, close on half of all young people in the country. They are reached by 1,400 university-trained youth workers, supported by approximately 40,000 volunteers.
The breadth and depth of the education delivered to young people all over the country by youth workers is staggering. And it's great value for money. Indecon International Research Economists report that for every €1 invested in youth work, the State saves €2.20 in reduced welfare, justice, and health costs for young people.
At a time when large multinationals decry the lack of 21st-century skills in our country's school-leavers, the youth sector focuses directly on leadership, teamwork, critical analysis, and creative thinking. This is not to mention welfare, reflective thinking, and well-being, including relationships, sexuality, and mental health promotion. The formal education system is lacking these vital ingredients.
Youth work is not designed to be a replacement or alternative for the school system - nor does the sector want to play that role. But our education systems are facing the greatest demands since the industrial revolution. It is now vital that young learners gain not just a bank of knowledge, but a bank of skills. Skills to walk into work environments that demand a level of critical thought, creativity, and communication never before expected of a generation.
So, what can the formal school system learn from youth work?
One of the most powerful elements of youth work is its basis in young people's active and voluntary participation and commitment. In practice, youth work places young people central to decision-making, by partnering them with their youth worker in programme planning. Dialogue between young people and adults in the youth work environment is fundamental.
Of course, this approach is not directly transferrable to the school system but when implemented in an adjusted form can yield powerful results in a classroom, particularly at senior cycle.
Another integral element of youth work is the holistic approach taken to each individual young person. This is summed up neatly by Foróige, one of Ireland's largest youth networks. They enable young people to, "involve themselves consciously and actively in their own development and in the development of society". Removing the 'one size fits all' approach of formal education curricula, allows a youth worker to engage a young person in their own interests, and build from there.
Ultimately, all teachers and youth workers are striving to achieve the best for the young people in their care. It is intense, and challenging work that is unceasing in its demands. But this pressure should not stop any educator from looking up from time to time, breaking out of silos, and casting an interested eye over what others are doing.
Steven Daly runs Camara Ireland, the Irish education hub of the international Charity, Camara Education. Camara Ireland hosts 'TechSpace' a national movement powered by a consortium of youth organisations. TechSpace supports youth workers to use technology to improve youth work.
On November 4 over 250 young people and educators from national youth clubs and schools across Ireland are gathering in the Google Foundry for the TechSpace Creative Tech Fest to celebrate their native interests in creative technology. Now in its fourth year, the Creative Tech Fest celebrates the achievements of young people in digital media, music, 3D Design, An Méain as Gaeilge as well as inventive science, technology, engineering, arts and maths (STEAM) activities