10.6 Recognition and validation of skills acquired through youth work
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The significance of youth work as an opportunity structure for non-formal and informal learning by children and young people is widely acknowledged in Germany. This is regularly emphasised in the child and youth reports of the federal goverment (e.g. 16. Child and youth report 2020), the national educational reports (e.g. by bodies such as the Authoring Group Educational Reporting 2022: Autor:innengruppe Bildungsberichterstattung 2022), and in other publications.
Despite this, the effects – and, above all, the potential negative consequences – of officially recognising skills acquired through non-formal and informal learning in youth work are the subject of debate in Germany. The following aspects are seen as having potential negative consequences: Firstly, for skills learnt and acquired in youth work to be visible, they must also be measurable. The result is that skills that cannot or only partially be measured cannot be recognised. A formal recognition of the skills learnt and acquired focusses primarily on potential applications (e.g. employability) that do not necessarily correspond to the independent education mandate of youth work in Germany. This "instrumentalised" way of looking at skills recognition goes against the ideal upheld as central to youth work in Germany, i.e. that learnable or acquirable content in youth work is self-determined – and thus by its nature not predetermined.
There are various forms of recognising the skills acquired in youth work (see Baumbast et al. 2014). The most commonly used are attendance certificates from programmes, courses and exchange formats. Certificates of participation document the tasks completed and may also include a description of the skills learnt. Some are filled in by the participants themselves, while others are filled in by the host or organising organisations. The JULEICA youth leader card is one example of the latter. Whilst it is used Germany-wide, the criteria for acquiring the JULEICA card are not uniform across all federal states. However, the JULEICA card is somewhat different to other certificates of participation in that, in order to acquire a card, the applicant must meet certain qualifying criteria (e.g. attendance of a course). JULEICA cardholders thus document their compliance with the minimum criteria required in order to obtain a card, as well as youth leadership activities that result in the acquisition of further skills. Evidence of competence – using various methods (e.g. dialogue-based observations, self-reflection on skills learnt/acquired, tests and assessments) – serves to catalogue the skills learnt/acquired specifically in youth work. The Certificate of Competence International (Kompetenznachweis International, KNI) raises the profile of the skills acquired in international youth exchanges and the engagement of young people abroad (cf. IJAB).
With the exception of the JULEICA card, the various forms of skills recognition do not exist uniformly across Germany. A broad spectrum of systems for recognising volunteer work exist at local level.
Continuing professional development (CPD) offers one way for volunteers to develop their skills in specific areas. Around half of the 16 federal states in Germany have introduced state-level grants for CPD (own research). At local level, the availability of these development opportunities is heavily dependent on the priorities of local policy-makers and organisations.
Releasing employees from their duties in order to volunteer in youth work is one form of social recognition of their engagement. No guidelines exist at national level regarding release from duties for employees to pursue their commitment to youth work. However, since youth work is considered to be particularly important and deserving of support, (various different) rules on release from duties have been adopted in the individual states. Apart from a handful of exceptions, release from duties is unpaid. In most cases, employees can request to be released from duties for a maximum of 12 workdays in order to pursue youth work commitments (cf. JULEICA).
To qualify for state subsidies to finance youth work, the applying organisations must themselves contribute a reasonable share of the financing. This can also be rendered in the form of volunteer work. This, too, is an expression of society's appreciation for engagement in youth work.
Numerous federal reports and opinions issued by youth work umbrella organisations consistently emphasise the importance of youth work in helping children and young people to acquire skills. They highlight how youth work provides learning opportunities that are not found in schools, families or with friends. In addition to promoting personal social skills and enabling young people to practice taking responsibility, these opportunities are seen as being particularly well-suited to aiding the acquisition of democratic skills and organisational abilities (e.g. management, leadership, planning). Diverse studies show that former participants self-report youth work as a positive experience. Many participants also report afterwards that the engagement served to boost or expand their skills (e.g. Düx et al. 2008). Most German studies in this field are based on a target population from youth association work. By contrast, few studies exist on volunteering in open youth work activities.
Whilst the studies show that youth work does indeed offer further opportunities for skills acquisition, to date – although perfectly plausible in theory – no firm scientific evidence of actual skills acquisition within these opportunity structures beyond self-assessments has been presented. This is not because empirical evidence would not support causality – but rather because the study designs used so far (mostly cross-sectional surveys that can neither confirm skills already possessed prior to the engagement nor allow an unambiguous link to be established between existing skills and possible alternative learning spaces) do not offer room to describe such a connection. Nevertheless, against the backcloth of the debates in Germany indicated at the start of this section, some voices from the youth work community question in general the relevance and use of such evidence since it does not do justice to the principles and objectives of youth work and its experiential nature.