Learning to Participate: Who educates young people on political participation and how?

Source: Own photo. Training for youth workers organised by the Department of Didactics of Civic and Citizenship Education at the University of Vienna and Sapere Aude. Vienna, November 2019

Training for youth workers. Organised by the Department of Didactics of Civic and Citizenship Education at the University of Vienna and Sapere Aude. Vienna, November 2019

Several actors embark on the endeavour of educating young people on political participation.

Schools, media, family and peers have a key role in this process. Besides them, youth workers, and the youth sector more broadly, also play a role in the participation landscape. Their untapped and underestimated potential could reveal interesting possibilities for both researchers and policymakers. In the Learning to Participate (LEAP) project, youth researchers and youth workers have teamed up. Their work engages youth workers and young people alike to build projects that foster participation. It also addresses the professional development of youth workers. LEAP is an EU funded project under the Erasmus+ programme and it involves three youth organisations based in Austria, Croatia and Italy, and two universities in Austria and Germany. It started in 2019 and runs until 2021.  


What does (youth) participation mean?

According to van Deth (2014), political participation can be understood as citizen’s voluntary action which focuses on the state, the government, and, more generally, politics. Developments in participation research detail a wide repertoire of actions that can be understood as participation. These include, for example, volunteering, civic and community engagement, as well as more formalised participation, such as voting. Furthermore, the framework of the LEAP project understands participation also as the practice of citizens (Kleinshmidt, Lange, 2016) acting in the policymaking process. The project embeds education on participation in the perspective of Civic and Citizenship Education, which has at its core individual interests and the objective of creating autonomous citizens (Lange, Heldt, 2016). Therefore, educating (and learning) on participation requires the empowerment of young people by developing their "capacity for action," which is the opportunity, space, the power and willingness to act. This definition of capacity for action is retrieved from the work of Yann Le Bossé, who refers to the capacity of people (in an individual or collective way) to exert a bigger control on what matters to them, their circle or the community/communities they identify with. These definitions include the idea that participation is contextual and educating on participation is a process in which young people become engaged in their environments and communities.

In LEAP, what does the youth sector do for participation?

Different actors have a variety of ways and roles when educating on participation. The youth sector, due to its nature, features and scope, has a specific way of engaging (with) young people. According to the Council of Europe, youth work is based on informal learning processes that facilitate educational activities that actively involve young people. Youth workers are paid professionals or volunteers and they can be certified or non certified according to national or local policy frameworks. In LEAP, youth workers are professionals that are building educational activities about participation through the approach of Project-based Learning (PBL). This pedagogical approach has its roots in Kilpatrick’s work The Project Method (1918) and Dewey’s Democracy and Education (1916), whose ideas and pedagogical principles reflect on education and life in a democracy. Experimenting with this method therefore seemed vital to the topic of participation in LEAP. While PBL is mainly developed and researched in the school context, it also has a place in the youth sector due to its features of situating learning in real-life events and deriving projects from youth’s interests. This approach can translate into educational practices with the idea of participation as a contextual and empowering citizenship practice. Moreover, it puts the young person at the centre of educational activities. While being youth-centred is already a feature of youth work, PBL can be implemented as a revitalised pedagogical framework for youth workers to better support young people in identifying their interests and priorities and turn these into projects. This youth-driven practice means shifting the educational paradigm towards young people and putting at the core the issues that matter to them. It means not simply assuming what matters to young people, but instead supporting them in figuring it out.

To conclude, youth workers play a vital role in the education and participation landscape. However, it must be noted that there are several policy debates and open issues around their status and work where policy efforts are still required. With the EU contributing to strengthening this policy area, different governance levels overlap and complement each other even if education and training policies are under the responsibility of Member States.

Some of the issues we address can be summarised as follows:

  • Youth workers status. The Youth Wiki, a European encyclopaedia about youth policies, reveals a high level of fragmentation about youth work and its status. Amongst the countries of the project, the status of “youth worker” is not recognised in Croatia, while in Italy it is listed under “volunteering”. In Austria and Germany, their role is recognised and variations exist amongst different levels of governance. In line with the 2019-2027 EU Youth Strategy, our work on the LEAP project discusses the importance of the recognition of a youth workers’ statute, including an EU one. This would guarantee better support for their vital function in our societies. Due to their role in the “education to participation” landscape, it seems key to us to acknowledge their role through an EU statute.
  • Youth workers qualifications. In Croatia, youth workers’ professional development relies on the support provided by the EU through e.g. the Erasmus+ programme, although education institutes provide qualifications and training. In Italy, their qualification happens through formal education. In Austria and Germany, their qualifications vary according to national or local levels and according to the contexts in which they work. We acknowledge the efforts of national and EU institutions to address this issue. LEAP is offering elaborated trainings which aims to contribute to these efforts. However, to complement existing qualifications, the recognition and validation of youth workers’ competences would largely benefit from a higher formal and informal recognition.
  • Educational Practices. Our understanding of Civic and Citizenship Education is furthermore based on the idea that individual interests are key. The educational practices of youth workers in LEAP have shown that young people have very diverse interests that could shift policy agendas. Including youth workers’ practices in the policy-making process could reveal insights about youth and understand how these actors educate on participation. This, in turn, could lead to shifting perspectives on young people’s role in democracies and an increased involvement of young people in the policymaking process on any issues that concern them and not solely on “youth-related issues.”


About the author

Alessandra Santoianni is a PhD candidate and University Assistant at the University of Vienna. Her research interests are about Civic and Citizenship Education, inclusion and political participation. Previously she worked in France as project manager and youth worker. Currently, she is also coordinating the Erasmus+ funded projects Learning to Participate (LEAP) and Enhancing Research Understanding through Media (ERUM).

The European Commission support for the production of this publication does not constitute an endorsement of the contents which reflects the views only of the authors, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein.