It is quite a strange thing when you are asked ‘are you interested in writing a blog?’ the brief being that it needs to be interesting to the wider educational workforce! As a qualified youth worker and staff member of a national voluntary youth organisation it took me a while to decide what to write about – I considered topics such as youth workers imminent registration to the EWC, the value of volunteers in informally educating young people in youth clubs and the impact of youth work on young people. However, I decided to write something that I hope will appeal to the wider educational workforce - the value of international experiences on young people. Europe has been in the news quite a lot lately and, unfortunately, for reasons I disagree with. The impending withdrawal of the UK from the EU could have a significant effect on many young people that we work with in the education sector.
In particular, the withdrawal from the EU will have an effect on youth work organisations within Wales including the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of Wales who I work for. Since 2003 we have been providing opportunities for young people to take part in international youth exchanges with our German partners, Sportkreisjugend Rems-Murr. In 2016 we undertook the 13th annual youth exchange with 30 young people from Wales interacting with 30 young people from Germany in a cultural youth exchange with the theme of ‘Education through Sport’. Most of the young people were from disadvantaged areas within Wales and had not been involved in an international project or had ever been abroad. As an organisation we have seen how effective this activity is in developing the skills of young people, breaking down barriers and, most importantly, having fun with their peers.
Unfortunately, I hadn’t experienced an exchange with a youth club but I did go on a French exchange with my school. This had a positive effect on me and my peers – perhaps the only key difference was that this was a home stay exchange and not one where all young people stay together in residential centres. On reflection, it was at this school exchange that I learned a lot about myself, who I was as a person and how I was able to socialise with others from a different country. It was also a time where I could learn about and fully understand my own culture by living in another country. These are things that still stay with me today.
As mentioned our youth exchange with our German partners started in 2003. We were lucky that we were contacted by the now defunct Wales Youth Agency informing us that a group from Germany wanted to partner with a group from Wales. Following an advanced planning visit (APV) I led the first youth exchange with our German partners and this gave me an opportunity to provide the same opportunities for young people that my school had provided for me. Having led many residential activities, the task to organise an exchange was a great opportunity to progress my work further. The first exchange was not straightforward and was a learning experience for the leaders (from both countries) as well as the young people themselves. Learning to work with countries who had a different set of values was something that took time for both groups to adapt to. The initial stress, and sometimes conflict, caused by cultural differences was overcome and over the years the exchanges have got better every year. It’s not a ‘Jolly’ – anybody who has been on a youth exchange as a leader will tell you that it is hard work. We need to dispel these myths and let people know what learning is undertaken by the young people. Yes, they have fun but they learn about themselves, develop new skills and gain new confidences in how they approach life.
International youth exchanges provide young people with opportunities for personal development and learning that can assist them with their educational attainment and prospects of employment. Skills gained include team work, problem solving and effective communication. In achieving this it also develops confidence, citizenship, wellbeing and social mobility. Youth exchanges also provide young people with an opportunity to see the world through a new lens and become aware of the opportunities that exist that do not limit them to their own communities. We must not underestimate the lasting friendships that are developed through these youth exchanges, often providing a pathway for further European travel and experiences.
Erasmus+ provides many varied opportunities. Last year I was involved in an Erasmus+ project called ‘Not the Usual Suspects’ – which engaged young people in discussions with politicians. These young people involved had never had an interest in politics and none of them had any previous experience of decision making processes.
At the heart of this project was the ‘Not the Usual Hustings’ event which was held at a trampoline park in Cardiff. During the event young people aged 16 to 25 year old asked candidates from the main political parties why young people should vote for them in the Welsh Assembly Elections. Also during the event young people attended a ‘market place’ to find out more about politics, whilst we also launched a ‘Politically Correct App’ which was produced by young people to explain how politics affects young people in Wales. The event finished with everyone, including the politicians testing out the trampolines!
The funding from Erasmus+ enabled young people from disadvantaged areas to get actively involved. They experienced group and teamwork tasks, and challenged themselves by caving, kayaking and gorge walking whilst they learned about politics and political processes. We were delighted that this project won the Youth Work Excellence Award in Wales and has recently been highlighted as a case study by Erasmus+.
As an organisation, the Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of Wales have been successful in obtaining funding from the Erasmus+ programme for youth exchanges whilst many other youth work organisations within Wales have had similar successes. There are opportunities under Erasmus+ for schools, further education, higher education and adult education though we need to ensure that we take advantage of these opportunities. During 2016 €8.4m was brought into Wales from the Erasmus+ programme, this was up from €5m in 2015. We need to make use of this funding while we can as there are some concerns that this may not be available post Brexit. However, I remain optimistic that the UK could be part of the Erasmus+ programme until the end of the current funded programme which ends in 2020 and that there may be further new opportunities if there is a successor to the Erasmus+ programme. We need to let people know about the benefit of this programme to young people and be prepared to campaign to ensure these opportunities still exist post Brexit.
So for those reading this blog you are the ones who can create these opportunities for young people to broaden their horizons and learn from their involvement in an international activity. So what are you waiting for? You have the opportunity to change young people’s lives like the teacher at my comprehensive did for me! Let’s make the most of this funding while it exists!
For more details about Erasmus+ contact: www.erasmusplus.org.uk.
For more details about one of our Erasmus+ projects:
Grant Poiner is the National Development Officer for Boys’ and Girls’ Clubs of Wales having worked with the organisation in a variety of roles since 1998.
Since 2001 Grant has been a member of the Connect Cymru Youth Exchange Committee that promotes and supports international opportunities for young people from youth work projects in Wales.
Currently Grant is the Chair of the CWVYS (Council of Wales for Voluntary Youth Services) Training Committee which supports the training needs of voluntary organisations within the youth work sector, whilst also being a member of ETS Wales that endorse youth work training programmes within Wales.
Grant is a JNC qualified youth worker and has an MA in Youth and Community Work from UWTSD.