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EACEA National Policies Platform


5. Participation

5.7 “Learning to participate” through formal, non-formal and informal learning

Last update: 22 January 2021

LAST MODIFIED ON: 11/11/2020 - 01:15

On this page
  1. Policy Framework
  2. Formal learning
  3. Non-formal and informal learning
  4. Quality assurance/quality guidelines for non-formal learning
  5. Educators' support

Policy Framework

Under The Education (Northern Ireland) Order 2006, grant-aided schools are required to provide a balanced and broadly based curriculum which:

  • promotes the spiritual, emotional, moral, cultural, intellectual and physical development of pupils at the school and thereby of society
  • prepares such pupils for the opportunities, responsibilities and experiences of life by equipping them with appropriate knowledge, understanding and skills.

The General teaching Council for Northern Ireland’s publication, Teaching: the Reflective Profession (2011) states that ‘education is the path to self‑realisation and personal fulfilment, civic well-being and economic prosperity.’


Formal learning

The Entitlement Framework is a Northern Ireland-only framework of qualification provision for young people at Key Stage 4 (14-16) and post-16. It sets out the minimum number and range of courses a school should offer. At least a third should be general courses and a third applied. Schools ensure they meet their requirement by working collaboratively with other schools and colleges working as an' Area Learning Community'.

Citizenship is not taught as a discrete subject but is integrated into the area of learning, ‘Learning for Life and Work’. Social and civic competences may also be developed through the ‘Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities’ within the curriculum.

At Key Stage 4 (age 14 to 16), the statutory requirements of the curriculum include the area of  ‘Learning for Life and Work’. Elements within this that relate to the development of social and civic competences are ’Local and Global Citizenship’ and ‘Personal Development’.

Under the Local and Global Citizenship element students, at a minimum, should be enabled to:

  • respond to the specific challenges and opportunities which diversity and inclusion present in Northern Ireland and the wider world
  • identify and exercise their rights and social responsibilities in relation to local, national and global issues
  • develop their understanding of the role of society and government in safeguarding individual and collective rights in order to promote equality and to ensure that everyone is treated fairly
  • develop their understanding of how to participate in a range of democratic processes
  • develop awareness of key democratic institutions and their role in promoting inclusion, justice and democracy
  • develop awareness of the role of non-governmental organisations.

Under the Personal Development element students, at a minimum, should be enabled to:

  • develop an understanding of how to maximise and sustain their own health and well-being
  • reflect on, and respond to, their developing concept of self, including managing emotions and reactions to on-going life experiences
  • recognise, assess and manage risk in a range of real-life contexts
  • develop their understanding of relationships and sexuality and the responsibilities of healthy relationships
  • develop an understanding of the roles and responsibilities of parenting
  • develop further their competence as discerning consumers in preparation for independent living.

There is also a statutory requirement to develop ‘Thinking Skills and Personal Capabilities’ which at Key Stage 4 are: problem solving; self-management and working with others.

The qualification most commonly taken at the end of Key Stage 4 is the General Certificate of Secondary Education (GCSE). There is a GCSE in 'Learning for Life and Work', offered by the CCEA examining board. The course content of this qualification is aligned with many of the requirements for the 'Learning for Life and Work' area of learning outlined above. Assessment for GCSE Learning for Life and Work is a combination of examination and controlled assessment. Controlled assessment is work done by the student over a period of time and marked by their teacher.

Further details are in the specification for the qualification, available from the Council for the Curriculum, Examinations and Assessment (CCEA) website.

CCEA also offers students in Northern Ireland a GCSE in Government and Politics, which has two main units: democracy in action and international politics in action. As outlined in the specification for the qualification, it aims to encourage students to:

  • develop a lifelong interest in government and politics
  • form their own beliefs about political issues and events
  • consider important political concepts such as power, authority and accountability
  • think critically about the political systems in which they live and how they might participate in those systems
  • develop as effective and independent learners who are able to analyse and critically evaluate a range of different viewpoints.

Further details are available in the specification for the qualification.

At Key Stage 5 (ages 16-18) a GCE (General Certificate of Education) A level qualification in Government and Politics is available, and is offered by the CCEA examining board.

The aims of the course, as stated in the specification, are to encourage students to:

  • develop a lifelong interest in government and politics;
  • draw together different areas of knowledge, skills and understanding;
  • develop higher order thinking skills, for example creative thinking and problem-solving;
  • carry out research;
  • think critically about the political systems in which they live and how they may participate in those systems;
  • develop advanced study skills that help them prepare for third level education;
  • provide extended responses and evidence of quality of written communication; and
  • demonstrate, through external assessments, that they are able to understand and apply key concepts and can think and write critically.

Further details are in the specification for the qualification.

Another relevant qualification at Level 3 of the Regulated Qualifications Framework is the Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (CoPE). A number of examining boards offer this qualification in Northern Ireland.

CoPE provides young people with the opportunity to take part in a range of activities that help develop and demonstrate a range of personal, key and employability skills leading to personal effectiveness. In turn they can give something back to their community and also obtain recognition and accreditation.  It includes a module in ‘Active Citizenship’ which consists of a ‘Community Action’ challenge and a ‘Community Placement’ challenge.

Further details are in the specification for this qualification.

Note: Education post-16 is not compulsory in Northern Ireland.


Non-formal and informal learning

School councils

A 2014 Circular, titled ‘Pupil Participation’, from the Department of Education on pupil participation stated that:

As well as linking to the curriculum, particularly through […] Local and Global Citizenship, active participation in schools can develop children and young people’s understanding of democratic structures, enhance their insights into decision-making processes and assist in their development to become active citizens in the wider community.

Concepts highlighted within the ‘Learning for Life and Work’ area of the curriculum include democracy and active participation which require ‘young people to be provided with opportunities to participate in school and society, and school councils provide one way to facilitate this goal.’

The Department of Education has stated its intention to support all schools to strengthen democracy in the school environment, and to establish a school council (a group of pupils within a school elected by their peers to represent them and their views) using the Democra-School programme. This was designed by the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People (NICCY).

Despite such support for school councils, they are not a statutory requirement and it is up to schools whether to have them or not and what form they should take.

The Northern Ireland Commissioner for Children and Young People updated its Democra-School guidance pack in 2016 which is now known as Pupils’ Voices: Making a Difference.

Involvement in the community

There are many opportunities for young people to take part in activities serving the local community. These include volunteering and social action (See ‘Youth Volunteering at National Level’).

Some formal education courses provide opportunities for students to become involved in action projects, including the ‘Local and Global Citizenship’ strand of ‘Learning for Life and Work’, which is compulsory for 14- to 16-year-olds.  The (optional) Certificate of Personal Effectiveness (see ‘Formal learning’ above) includes a ‘community action challenge’ and a ‘community placement challenge’. Examples given of what might satisfy the community action requirement include:

  • producing a newsletter to raise awareness of local needs/issues/events
  • designing and making an aid to help someone who has a disability
  • researching an issue of concern to a local group and presenting findings and conclusions, which include practical suggestions for dealing with the chosen issue
  • assisting with the organisation and running of a residential experience for a group of one’s choice
  • undertaking a project to improve the environment.

Examples of what might fulfil the requirements of the community placement challenge include:

  • working in a youth club as an assistant leader
  • acting as a student/peer mentor/student tutor in school
  • assisting in an elderly persons home/nursery
  • working for a voluntary organisation/charity.

Specific initiatives/programmes include:

  • the National Citizen Service
  • the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award
  • the Network for Youth initiative.

The Northern Ireland National Citizen Service (NI NCS) is a government-backed initiative that brings together young people aged 15 to 17 from different backgrounds to help them develop greater confidence, self- awareness and responsibility with a view to creating a more cohesive, responsible and engaged society. Schools and colleges are encouraged to promote NCS to their students as schools and colleges can work with NCS providers to help students develop the skills that will support their economic and social participation. Government backing means that involvement in NCS brings no extra costs to schools or colleges. Each participant pays a contribution of up to £50 and bursaries are available on a case by case basis. Support is provided for young people with additional needs.

NCS programmes, held in autumn and summer during school holidays, have four main parts:

  • a team building residential
  • activities aimed at developing skills for life and work
  • planning and delivering a project to benefit one’s own community
  • graduation.

The initiative is supported by the Department for Communities.

Further information is available in ‘National Programme for Youth Volunteering’ in the article ‘Youth volunteering at national level’.

The Duke of Edinburgh’s (DofE) Award programme is a youth achievement award for 14- to- 24-year-olds, aimed at fostering social and employability skills. Schools, colleges, universities, youth centres, youth organisations and businesses may become involved in running the programme. Participants complete a programme of activities in four or five sections that involve, among other things, helping the community or the environment.

The Network for Youth initiative was launched by the Education Authority in October 2016, aimed at strengthening participation in the youth service at local and regional levels. The NI Youth Forum is leading the initiative, which aims to create a space for young people to have a voice, promote partnership working and support the coming together of young people at regional level.

Partnership working

briefing note on youth provision was issued in August 2016 by the Research and Information Service of the Northern Ireland Assembly to aid the Committee for Education in identifying potential areas for inquiry. One such area was 'what actions the Department [of Education] is taking to improve partnerships and links between formal and non-formal education’.

The Department of Education encourages and facilitates partnership working through programmes such as Extended Schools which is targeted at schools serving the most deprived communities and provides the opportunity to complement formal curriculum based education.

The Extended Schools policy document published in 2006 to accompany the launch of the programme outlines that an Extended school provides:

“a range of services and activities, sometimes during or beyond the school day, to help meet the needs of children, their families and the wider community. In doing so, Extended Schools will engage in collaboration and partnership with neighbouring schools and statutory and voluntary and community sector organisations operating in the community.”.

Extended Schools funding enables those schools meeting set eligibility criteria to provide a variety of additional learning opportunities and services, in accordance with priority areas identified, which have a clear focus on removing barriers to learning, improving educational outcomes and supporting disadvantaged children and young people so that they can reach their full potential.

Extended Schools provision will differ in each school but may include:

  • breakfast or homework clubs,
  • after school study support including literacy and numeracy and tailored subject support,
  • sport and leisure activities,
  • arts, music, drama and a wide range of other special interest clubs,
  • programmes for parents,
  • opportunities for family or adult learning, and
  • community use of schools.

A key aspect of Extended Schools policy has been to encourage schools to work collaboratively with each other and with a range of external providers in order to provide a joint approach to securing improved outcomes for disadvantaged children and young people and their families. A Department of Education Circular issued in 2010 highlighted  that the most effective extended schools programmes had ‘joined up plans with other provision such as the youth service, health, neighbourhood renewal, and community relations’ (p.5).

Other initiatives focusing on social and civic competences

The Bar Mock Trial Competition takes place across the UK, offering students in years 10 to 13 (ages 14 to 17) the opportunity to take part in criminal mock trials, in real courts. Students take on the roles of barristers and witnesses and present their case against teams from other schools. The competition has run annually since 1991 and involves over 2,500 state school students, 300 barristers and advocates and 90 judges from across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland who volunteer their time. The competition is run by Young Citizens (the umbrella organisation for the Citizenship Foundation’s youth-focused work),  and sponsored by the General Council of the Bar of England and Wales, the four Inns of Court and the local Bar Circuits.  Further information on the competition is available on the Young Citizens website.

The Mock Council of the European Union gives students from across the UK the opportunity to develop their debating skills and increase their knowledge of the European Union.


Quality assurance/quality guidelines for non-formal learning


The Department of Education’s Education and Training Inspectorate (ETI) has developed quality indicators to be used both as the framework for its own inspections of youth provision and in organisations’ self-evaluation procedures.

Quality is considered under three main headings: Achievements and Standards; Provision for Learning; and Leadership and Management.

There are two Quality Indicators under the 'Quality of Achievements and Standards' heading:

  • Personal Development Quality Indicator:  How effectively do the young people develop personal attitudes, values and self-confidence and build on connections between formal and informal education?
  • Social Development Quality Indicator: How effectively do the young people function socially and contribute economically?


Educators' support

The Five Nations Network supports sharing of practice in education for citizenship and values in England, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The network is managed by the Association for Citizenship Teaching and  offers workshops, conferences and funding for small research projects.

The Standing Conference on Teacher Education, North and South (SCoTENS) is a network of 37 colleges of education, university education departments, teaching councils, curriculum councils, education trade unions and education centres on the island of Ireland with a responsibility for and interest in teacher education. It was established as part of the broader peace dynamic that was gathering momentum at the time.

One of the areas which it focuses on is citizenship and it provides teaching resources on its website.

The Northern Ireland Assembly Education Service provides teaching resources grouped by stage of education, including for post-16. It also hosts three Teacher Training days a year and offers a Teacher Training in Schools programme. This includes training for groups of trainee teachers who are studying citizenship or politics as part of their course.