As the American drama film Precious (2009, based on the 1996 novel Push by the former social worker Sapphire) makes clear to a wider audience, much of what we believe in as standards of communication may not exist for young people who live in poverty, far away from social inclusion, solid education and regular work.
Their finely-meshed “hot culture” may be filled with references to “how it is done”, what others know from first-hand experience and so must be true, with denials of responsibility, constant mutations of moral principles, othering, the effects of self-stigmatisation and scapegoating, and an always-impending withdrawal of essential contact. Any horror vacui amidst such phenomena is quickly countered by junk food, icons of trash culture and, if at all, intakes of the net with its illusions of appropriation offered by social media services (as often the youngster´s only route to present a self-concept in a wider social context) which actually expropriate private data and so multiply the fatal violation of communicative and ethical standards the youths are forced to tolerate. Within a recent survey (17th of September 2012 until 5th of October 2012) by the European project Social Web – Social Work, nearly 40% of 189 European professionals state that they are aware that the children and youths at risk which they work with have received nasty and hurtful online messages.
A lost generation?
The group under discussion is all but small – in 2012, there were about 75 million unemployed youth around the world (De Weck, 2012) According to the report on Employment and Social Developments in Europe 2012 (08/01/2013) by the European Commission every fifth European between 15 and 24 is without work. In Spain and Greece this concerns every second of this age group. In the south of Spain, young people, forced to live together with their parents and grandparents in tiny apartments on the sole income of a grandparent´s pension, can be seen to walk about with dozens of carefully prepared CVs they present in crowded bars or restaurants in order to ask for menial work. The owners or employees they encounter may accept these papers with an encouraging smile but in most cases can only send the youngsters back to the street and their homes.
Staying above the water
Clareece “Precious” Jones´ dreams, in which she imagines herself to be a soul music diva, allow for a mental escape from the overpowering situation. By nourishing this dream in the shape of a continuous narrative, Precious tries to feel the attention, curiosity, status and success she actually lacks. There is a coping self-efficacy, the beginning of a self-regulation at work , so that later, with the help of her teacher and a social worker, sinking AND swimming (a healthy balance between frustration and success) can become the order of the day – a striking scene at the ending of the movie shows Precious with her small child in a swimming pool, teaching him how to stay above the water.
For her teacher at the alternative school Each one teach one (a ficticious school named after Frank Charles Laubach´s maxime), one of the first moves is to point to the clock. A punctual start of the lesson shows that an anticipatory attitude is the core element of key competence acquisition, which actually can only be called so, if it is as reliable as a watch. Stable didactic coordinates and the teacher´s self-presentation as a role model serve for a constant re-contextualising of rules and help to explain the maximes of competition.
While teaching Precious to read, her teacher Ms Rain listens to her way of reading the world. Participation in a spelling contest establishes in Precious a sense of the importance of confronting the complexity of the world not only with competent and “correct” reading and writing, but also with a narrative of her own. Precious starts to see herself less as an object of her dreams, and more in her own cognitive progress. She builds up a kind of self-esteem that becomes part of a dynamic attitude, with which she can define the role of key competences she is about to build up.
The model of the lock
While it is clear that a short workstay abroad for young people with so-called low achievements cannot contribute to an enhancement of specific, professional skills, it can, with a careful, long preparation and debriefing that makes the most of it, mean much for their key competence development. This should be made as transparent as possible to the young people themselves. What we can learn from the philosophical masterpiece of the eight key competences for lifelong learning (2006/962/EC) is, among many other things, that the functions of a key competence in the contexts of interpreted and interpreting knowledge and skill can position it, while dynamic attitudes define the role it can play (Jerusalem, 2006). I found a possibility to render this to students by referring to a lock, which relates to travel and to accessibility: The metaphor of a key competence as a lock is certainly not new, but has not yet been linked to the three-component key competence concept of the Council´s Recommendation within an elaborate model.
If a key competence resembles a lock (see link “lock” above , Franken, 2011), attitude can be compared to the pressure of the water loadings from a higher level according to displacement depth. The realistic estimation of a communicative situation or the regulating function of self-estimation may correspond to a “recognition of displacement depth” and a “stability against overturning”. It is with a training of this self-regulation of inner pressure, so to speak, that any training for key competences with youths at risk should start.
In other words,I interpret self-regulation (I used this term, since it is part of the PISA findings that children suffer from problems with their “self-regulation”) as necessary part of the attitude the Recommendation aims at.
It is not the same as self-knowledge, though, since this involves what I would call a philosophical step.
I do not believe in talent, I believe in attitude and I am certain that attitude develops with relentless training. Undersupported students should receive some theoretical knowledge about these connections, otherwise many of them grow into the habit of believing that they simply lack talent or of using some methodical knowledge in order to bypass the development of skills and attitude (conscious incompetence).
An international study plan for disadvantaged students
The European Grundtvig-2-project Eguidya (2008-2010) developed transferable strategies and structures to open up transnational work-related exchange abroad outside of compulsory education for young adults. These youngsters were between 18 and 24 years with educational disadvantages caused by personal hardships that were aggravated by socio-economic circumstances. The specific profiles of the fifteen partners from nine EU member states in North, West, East and South contributed to the project´s wide scope and its impact on institutions and their staff.
On the basis of screening and peer mentoring, the partners synchronised a special needs and counselling concept. All partners put emphasis on the interposition of key competences and its influence. Eguidya established an adaptable model plan of how every institution – with shared methods in planning, sending and hosting – can prepare its learners for transnational mobilities and supervise beneficiaries in its training centres or with cooperating local companies.
Both staff and young adults in-situ participated in all programme development stages and reported on the possibilities of individual stays abroad. The project gave not only its young participants, Eguidya mentor students and Eguidya students, a feeling of being part of an innovative brand. After a firm study plan, rendered on a single card, had been developed by the Finnish, Dutch and German partners, an entertaining booklet was devised by the experienced Finnish partner, SAMI Savonlinna. The booklet shows peer-group members at a work-related stay abroad and outlines the first steps towards it. Mobility, in this case work abroad, can be conceived as a cluster for mobilising a self-efficacy that can lead to the development of key competences which enable young adults at risk to interact successfully in socially heterogenous groups as they are present at any given workplace.
On Eguidya´s International study plan (see picture above), the first stage of preparation is the Eguidya self-efficacy scales (modelled on Albert Bandura´s work which a psychologist, Dario di Benedetto, prepared on the basis of some attitudinal elements of the eight key competences for lifelong learning, as they had been discussed, rephrased with, and agreed upon by, the young adults. Each of the eight pieces of the Eguidya competence card, which lists key competences from reliabilty to creativity, consists of (1) phrases that explain what the respective key competence means and what it is related to, of (2) a sentence about what it is good for and of (3) three to five “agreements” on how it will be shown in the most common situations in lessons and at the workplace. A random example: Card No. 5, called “Learning to Learn”, starts (1) with “Willingness to take advice”. (2) reads: “how you develop your and other students´ learning and become ready to show it”, while one of the agreements below (3) says “Account for your judgements”.
The ESE-scales ask, for example, whether a student feels ready to account for her or his judgments. If the young adult does not suggest some self-efficacy in these scales, and thus so does not offer a hint towards how her or his self-efficacy might be matched with the requirements of some of the work placements, it is quite likely that a work-stay abroad would not yet help to build up key competences and to form a self-concept through mobility.
We believed that mobility can be conceived as mobilising a self-efficacy that can lead to the development of key competences which enable young adults at risk to interact successfully in complex social groups as they are present at the workplace.
Tasks with a twist
Comparisons of the services of low-budget hotels, speed datings with the Eguidya key competence card, cultural sensitivity trainings, in which the young adults explore unknown surroundings within roleplay, and in-tray exercises (work simulations) related to travel preparations showed the disadvantaged young adults´ surprising potential. Such preparatory training units can take place within lessons in the student´s country of origin or within a blended-mentoring concept that can also be fulfilled abroad. Eguidya chose to run a workshop with such learning units as guests of a vocational college in Klatovy, Czech Republic, for all students that would absolve workstays abroad.
Employers who participated in the development of Eguidya invented difficult “iniation rites” for multi-national teams, such as, for example, to design an ultra-cheap tripartite menu, to run through an unknown Czech town with a just a few coins and to buy the ingredients, to cook the menu at full speed under supervision of a cook, to enjoy it and then to present the whole strategy to the teachers. Some teachers admitted that they would not have been able to fulfil the task. The matrix of underprivileged youth may include a large capacity for exhibiting transformative leadership within a group, a good time management and diplomatic flexibility, especially as concerns pick-up activities under stress. The first feature can also grow into a risk-factor. Strong identification with a given role, for example as authority for younger siblings, may disable students (who may perform a very good job in acting as an accompanying mentor for a student on a workstay) from absolving a work-stay abroad on their own.
The Eguidya key competence card and hence components of the European key competences for lifelong learning became guiding narratives for all, from student and teachers at home and abroad to the employers in all participating countries. Behind all stages of the study plan, there is the competence card as a central instrument, up to the workstay itself with the student´s report, and, afterwards, with the renewal of both the ESE-scales and the Europass CV.
Employers who would like to host a student receive an informative booklet about the students and the workstays. They are asked to sign a contract in which, again, attitudinal components of the key competences are listed. Employers then fill in a certification form (work assessment) which pays special attention to the same key competence components. All employers, that is, the personnel of cleaning agencies, carpenters, restaurants or bookshops, for example, tried to give the students tasks that also helped to build up key competences. These tasks had elements of the work assessment form in view (that were based on aspects of the eight key competences) and related to reliability, international competence, cooperativeness, learning-to-learn, result orientation and creativity.
Within 14 days, the student can experience what might be called a honeymoon phase with the new surroundings. For youngsters that have perhaps never left their home country or (even that can be the case) their hometown, the effect can be enormous, though the Eguidya students did not even choose a country or town for their stay on their own – for the workstay test-runs, the places they went to were chosen within a lottery.
Nearly all students in the test managed their stays and worked with good or even excellent results. All of them liked the experience. Employers asked some of them to return for a longer practical training. Two mentor students who found a vocational training opportunity at home reported that their employers had chosen them since they were impressed with their certified workstays abroad. Other students that had went on a short workstay entered vocational trainings in hospitals, with mail services companies or in restaurants.
The necessity of reading maps and spelling out the world outside of the fine meshes of routine, while being thrown upon scarce resources (also: language-wise), gives the youths a chance of re-forming their ways of expression, a sense of being “in demand” and “trusted upon” without having to look upon their situation as a fateful turn. The combat against what the Japanese call hikikomori phenomenon is also worth noting here. On their workstays, the students experienced how anything can be different, but what was truly new and unexpected was that amidst all those differences any of their official communication partners referred to the same principles, from the teachers in the countries of origin to the employer in the hosting country. All company representatives encouraged the young people to develop, especially, their latent entrepreneurial skills, while a representative of a global company addressed issues of obtrusive clothing, unhealthy food habits and, especially with female students, the absence of regular bodily exercise. These lacunae show the youths´ dependence on their social environment and their field-dependence that might decrease with workstays abroad.
It is clear that anyone who would like to organise workstays needs a to-do-list for sending and hosting underprivileged and undersupported young adults as well as caring employers with much creativity and ambition towards their tasks. If you are looking for some essentials in organising a workstay abroad with youths at risk,
1. look out for the right teacher at the other end (it does not matter at all in which type of school or college this partner works) and family companies in your town,
2. adapt syllabi to the preparation of workstays abroad (many elements will be useful for all students, English lessons may even improve),
3. let students travel with a student mentor in small (multi-national) groups and/ or develop a blended-mentoring concept
4. involve employers in your work and in the way the workstays are designed – check what you can do for them (hosting their apprentices together with students from your regular partner organisation, for example),
5. provide reliable mentors of the same peer-group for the students who will travel, both at home and abroad,
6. let them attend courses or events in adult education organisations or museums after work (too much leisure time is counterproductive in new surroundings),
7. check carefully how much time you and the mentor students are willing, or are able, to spend for the task and
8. tell the students in advance how much time you or others have got for them at which hours of the day and provide them with a phone number of a trusted person that they can call in case of an emergency.
At an Eguidya Meeting, the president of HORECA (federation of the hospitality sector in the province of Cádiz), Don Antonio de Maria Ceballos, stated that the idea of short-time workstays for disadvantaged youths, if it were in any way institutionalized, would spread like an oil spot on linen. Indeed the short-workstay practice corresponds to a situation, in which choices as to the future field of work must be taken earlier than ever before, while at the same time there is an ever-growing need for variety of work experience. A future entrepreneur needs the feeling of having conquered terra incognita. Social exclusion disables youths from feeling and fulfilling any of these requirements.
De Weck, Joseph (2012). Global youth unemployment rate climbs. In: Financial Post. 23 May 2012.
Franken, C. (2011). Job-Related Cross-Border Mobility as a First – Youngsters in Practical Trainings Abroad, Lecture at the conference Cross-Border Mobility in Education and Vocational Training (2011). Nationale Agentur “Bildung für Europa” im Auftrag des Bundesministeriums für Bildung und Forschung.
Jerusalem, M. (2006). Ziele individueller Entwicklungsförderung. In Entwicklungs- und Gesundheitsförderung durch Stärkung von Kompetenzen. Lehrstuhl für Pädagogische Psychologie und Gesundheitspsychologie der Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin. Retrieved February 2, 2013, from