Official Report (Hansard)

Session: 2011/2012

Date: 22 April 2009

Members present for all or part of the proceedings:

Mr Danny Kennedy (Chairperson) 
Mrs Naomi Long (Deputy Chairperson) 
Ms Martina Anderson 
Mr Tom Elliott 
Mrs Dolores Kelly 
Mr Ian McCrea 
Mr Stephen Moutray 
Mr Jim Shannon


Mr David Guilfoyle ) 
Ms Bernice Sweeney ) Youth Council for Northern Ireland 
Mr Stephen Hughes )
Ms Corinna Thompson )

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy):

The second evidence session is with the Youth Council for Northern Ireland. I welcome Mr David Guilfoyle, Ms Bernice Sweeney, Mr Stephen Hughes and Ms Corinna Thompson. Good afternoon, and thank you for your written submission. I invite you to give the Committee a brief overview, after which there will be an opportunity for members to ask questions.

Mr David Guilfoyle (Youth Council for Northern Ireland):

On behalf of the Youth Council for Northern Ireland, I thank the Committee for the opportunity to come here today. In our written submission, we said that we thought that it was important for the Committee to hear directly from youth workers and young people. Therefore, in addition to my colleague Bernice Sweeney, who is the Youth Council’s international officer, we are delighted to be joined by Corinna Thompson, a young person who is involved in programmes that are run by the statutory youth service sector, and Stephen Hughes, who is involved in the voluntary youth service sector. Each of my colleagues will give an overview of their own perspectives on the issues. We will be happy to expand on those during the question and answer session, by giving examples and citing case studies that the Committee might find helpful.

Ms Bernice Sweeney (Youth Council for Northern Ireland):

Good afternoon. We welcome this opportunity to address the Committee, and we thank you for responding to our offer to hear directly from youth workers and young people about the barriers, benefits, impact and necessities associated with incorporating a cross-cutting international dimension into the non-formal education sector.

The Youth Council for Northern Ireland believes that the European Union brings opportunities and challenges that we must actively promote and grasp. However, those opportunities must be open to all, including those from vulnerable and disadvantaged backgrounds. EU membership impacts on all of us — young and old, skilled and unskilled — and everyone should have the opportunity to understand and influence the development of Northern Ireland’s role as a European region.

We need to ensure that young people in Northern Ireland have a voice and that they are consulted about, and benefit fully from, the advantages that membership of the European Union brings. The Youth Council hopes that greater consideration and commitment will be given to European issues, particularly in the education and skills sector and in the newly emerging education and skills authority. We also hope that the impetus and motivation required for finally developing an international strategy for education in Northern Ireland will emerge.

The Youth Council is encouraged by the Department of Education’s commitment under theme 4 of the Executive’s ‘Priorities for European Engagement’ action plan. In addition, the Department’s commitment to promoting European programmes and assisting relevant departmental staff to develop a better understanding of the programmes in order to help maximise the benefits for young people and the workforce is encouraging.

We hope that the Department of Education will ensure that its Priorities for Youth — which will form the basis for a new strategy for the youth service in Northern Ireland — will reflect the need to support its commitment in the ‘Priorities for European Engagement’ action plan to encourage and support greater engagement by young people and youth workers in relevant European programmes.

The Youth Council believes that the importance of the European Union to Northern Ireland cannot be overemphasised and that the impact of the European Union on our lives — in political, social, economic and cultural terms — is ever increasing. As such, individual departmental business plans and strategies should reflect that. Although we understand the need to concentrate on the areas of EU policy that are deemed to be of greatest economic importance to Northern Ireland, we feel strongly that the European dimension of formal and non-formal education has been overlooked and should be given greater priority.

The youth sector can, and must, influence and contribute more to EU policy and legislation. However, we must be more open to sharing our experiences, meeting our responsibilities, and maximising and recognising the benefits of membership for all young people through formal and non-formal education routes.

The European Youth in Action programme, which the Youth Council co-ordinates in the region, is open to all young people aged 13 to 30 — particularly those from marginalised backgrounds — youth workers and organisations in the non-formal education sector. The programme supports initiatives across four priority areas; European citizenship, the participation of young people, cultural diversity and inclusion.

Ironically, those priority areas complement and mirror the key priority areas in the existing youth work strategy for Northern Ireland. Providing opportunities for the exchange of policy and best practice, as well as for the development of language skills and knowledge about the breadth of cultural diversity across Europe, is important in preparing future generations to participate fully in the European Union.

The Youth in Action programme enables young people to become more aware of their contribution to the effective functioning of democratic society in local, national, European and global contexts. Learning institutions need to be encouraged to adopt an outward and forward-looking approach and to promote the benefits of European Union education and training programmes, such as the European Youth in Action programme.

Relationships with our peers across Europe are not built overnight. Increasing cultural awareness; challenging stereotypes; changing perceptions, and building racial tolerance cannot always be learnt or experienced in a classroom. When we speak of exchanging experience and practice, it should not be perceived as a one-way process in which we only expect to learn from others. There is much good work that others here could benefit from, but, all too often, it has not received the attention or recognition it deserved, as a result of being overshadowed by other priorities.

The Youth Council believes that raising the awareness of children and young people about European issues, through education, should be given higher priority. We believe that greater recognition should be given to what has been achieved already within the non-formal education sector with respect to developing skills and greater intercultural awareness outside the classroom.

Finally, the Youth Council believes that the long-term benefits we will gain, as a region, by investing in today’s youth will depend on how actively we prepare young people for the challenges ahead, as regards developing a mindset, skills and awareness of being able to live peacefully and work in an increasingly global, multicultural and competitive economy. It is imperative that we create a dynamic, forward-looking workforce of skilled and unskilled workers that is open, and keen, to actively engage in, and create, strategic alliances and partnerships with other regions and member states of the European Union.

Ms Corinna Thompson (Youth Council for Northern Ireland):

I am Corinna. I am 18 years old, and I am a kind of been there, done that, person.

I got involved in an international exchange programme; an opportunity that arose from the youth work that I participate in. I was asked if I wanted to go, and the fact that I was asked made me more enthusiastic to participate as it was something that I chose to do rather than being forced into doing it.

As part of the programme, you become involved in organising the programme — and that offers so much more. You want to reap the benefits of it because you have been actively involved in it. The programme involves a great deal of preparation, and in the programme that I took part in, we met for up to a year beforehand. Furthermore, although the project itself was only two weeks long, we had to undertake six months of preparation; the benefits of which can only last a lifetime.

I feel that the programme has been really important as it has enabled me to gain social and cultural capital in a way that would not have been possible had I not participated. I am from a lower-income background and I do not have the money to fly halfway across the world to meet other people and experience other cultures. Therefore, being part of the programme has really opened up the world for me and has enabled me to gain that social and cultural capital.

International exchange is unique. For example, at school as part my year 10 study in the national curriculum — four years ago — I was taught about world religions. One of those religions was Judaism, and I learnt about Passover. The international exchange programme that I was on took me to Israel and I was able to actually celebrate Passover. Had I not had the opportunity to do that, I would not have been able to tell you a thing about it. However, the fact that I did — that I was there and participated in it — means that I am never going to forget it.

That is why I feel that the programme is so important. It gives you the real sense of culture that you cannot lift from a text book, and it has enabled me to see that there is a world outside Northern Ireland. I can now see beyond the confines of Northern Ireland and look towards Europe. Also, I feel much more part of the global community than I did before. For example, I was aware of what was occurring in Gaza, but now I know what is happening there, because I have met people from there. When I hear Gaza being talked about on the news — that is my friend’s country they are talking about: it is like local news to me now.

The programme has also enabled me to see that there is a European job market that I can jump straight into. I have gained skills that will enable me to demonstrate to an employer that I can work in a foreign country and can embrace and, more importantly, respect that country’s culture.

The programme involves healthy challenges that improve your courage and determination. Those challenges can range from simple hiccups in languages to extreme differences in social and cultural norms. As a result of my involvement in the programme I have learnt how to bargain, listen, compromise and understand. Furthermore, I can bring those qualities to an employer and, rather than saying that I have those qualities, I can demonstrate that I have actively used them, because I have participated in a programme that made me use those skills.

The experiences of living abroad, being thrown in at the deep end, and gaining those skills have made me enthusiastic to do it all over again. If I were lucky enough to be offered a placement, or job abroad, I would jump at the opportunity rather than being hesitant. I have learnt how to embrace the culture and instead of being cautious about what adaptations I might need to make to move to another country I am now willing to do that, because I have experienced the global community. To put that in context, I am moving to Birmingham this September to study law, and I really feel that I am equipped with the tools to move to that very multicultural city. I also feel that I can actively participate in Europe, whether I move away from Northern Ireland to work, or stay here and liaise with other people from other countries.

Overall, the international exchange programme has challenged me as a person. It has made me a much more rounded citizen and has pushed me to develop myself as an individual. It has also developed me personally and professionally.

Mr Stephen Hughes (Youth Council for Northern Ireland):

I am a youth work practitioner and I want to share some of my experiences with the Committee. We deliver several programmes within the European Youth in Action programme. Under the youth and democracy element of the programme, we run a programme called Youth in Politics.

In 2009, we will have thematic exchanges with Germany, Belgium and Sweden. We have also run several youth initiatives, which are opportunities for groups of young people, aged between 15 and 30, to deliver on a local or international issue. It is a participatory learning experience whereby young people get to control a whole project. It is a practical living and learning experience.

We have also availed of the professional-development element of the Youth in Action programme, whereby we swap interns, volunteers or staff across nations in order to gain different understandings, skills and practices in what we do, which is to intervene in young people’s lives.

Our motivation is mainly about increasing participation in education. We provide an education-based programme, which aims to increase opportunities for employment initiatives, youth development and policy development, and secure the interests of young people in Northern Ireland. It also increases the skills base of participants by equipping young people, staff and volunteers with more politically, and civically responsible, citizenship thinking. It gives young people and staff the opportunity to think about their roles in society and how they can give something back.

We are also giving young people a better knowledge and understanding of international and multicultural issues and developing their understanding of cultural diversity. It is also about keeping our services and staff at the highest standards. We believe that although we can import certain skills, we can export others. We have great experiences in peace-building and conflict resolution that we now share with other countries. We have sent youth workers to Bosnia and Herzegovina, Cyprus and elsewhere to share what we have learnt in Northern Ireland.

The benefits are that we now have more inclusive practice; better understanding of multiculturalism; changing perceptions; knowledge; dispelling of myths, and increasing racial tolerance. We are promoting Northern Ireland as somewhere to visit as a tourist destination and as a place where people can come to and learn new skills. We are creating more employable, creative and enterprising young people, who are more civically responsible and enhanced citizens. We complement formal education and embed lifelong learning as something that is not to be feared, but enjoyed, embraced, and with which to have fun.

We aspire for young people to have a better quality of life and we teach them to aspire for themselves. However, there are barriers. A number of serious barriers prevent increased participation of young people in international work. I can elaborate on that if you wish. Our staff are motivated, and finances are available to make progress happen. However, certain barriers prevent that progress.

I have faith that Members will incorporate these policies and services into the ESA and that international work will remain part of education; that Members will also explore staff’s, especially youth workers’, terms and conditions, so that those can be changed in order to enable staff to lead new international experiences for young people; and that that work remains a priority for education, employment and skills development.

Finally, a young person from west Belfast, who went on a Swedish exchange recently, said that the physical distance in being so far away from Belfast gave them the emotional distance to look at what was happening in their life and in the life of their community through other people’s eyes. It was like seeing the situation for the first time.

The Chairperson:

Thank you, Stephen, and thank you all for your presentations. I now invite members to ask questions. I will start. I welcome Corinna’s enthusiasm and compliment her on it. She emphasised networking and the ability to travel and experience Europe and other parts of the world. Clearly, that is important. First, how can that be built upon and extended beyond a few young people, as appears to be the case at present, to many?

Secondly, although it is great to travel to different places, it is important to come home and share that experience and enthusiasm. Do you have any ideas on those issues?

Ms Thompson:

You asked about coming home and sharing experiences. It can be as simple as a young person sitting down and talking to their family. When I watch the news now, I can understand the situations and I can relay that understanding to my family. I can now critically analyse the ongoing conflict. My exchange was based around conflict and diversity, not division. I can now talk to my friends about the situation and relate it to my own culture. Rather than learn about the culture in Israel or the Basque region, I can now reflect on what they have had to endure, and relate that to the conflict here. All networking involves talking to people and, perhaps, giving speeches. I have spoken to my school assembly about my experiences. Simple networking activities go a long way.

You also asked how we can extend the programmes to more people. I am, perhaps, twisting the question slightly, but one barrier that I know of is that you have to be a language student to be eligible for school exchanges. Therefore, the fact that international exchanges are open to anyone — not only those who are in school — suggests that we are reaching out to many people. It is all about advertising at the lowest levels, through youth clubs, where most young people in a community will congregate. We need to spread that message.

The Chairperson:

How does the Youth Council intend to expand upon and extend that project in a strategic way?

Ms Sweeney:

We conducted a survey across Northern Ireland recently among groups that have taken part in the Youth in Action programmes in the past few years to examine the impact and uptake of the programme. Evaluation is a key part of any exchange or youth initiative. Groups are required to evaluate the young people’s progress and skills acquisition at the end of an activity. Moreover, we have asked groups what longer-term benefits they have experienced. As Corinna said, some of those benefits are life-changing and could not have been obtained if those young people had not had the opportunity to make such trips.

It is also about hosting groups in Northern Ireland, and — with a different hat on — explaining to young people from other countries what life is like here. The young people must examine the political situation here and explain it to their peers in simple terms. We have a north/south/east/west programme — which is not Youth in Action — for which we conducted a longitudinal study of the impact on young people who have taken part in the programme, through which they were tagged over a series of years. We would love to do that with the Youth in Action programme. However, there are financial implications.

The Chairperson:

The Deputy Chairperson, Naomi Long, is next on the list to ask a question. I ask her to assume the Chair for a short time. I have been called out, but no discourtesy is intended.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs Long) in the Chair.

The Deputy Chairperson (Mrs Long):

Thank you for your presentation. Corinna said that she had gained the ability to bargain, listen, compromise and understand. We should, perhaps, organise an international exchange for some of our own Members.

You mentioned specific opportunities in which we have not fully exploited our role in Europe to the maximum benefit of young people. Will you outline specific examples? What do you consider to be the main barriers to absolute participation and co-operation? What measures could be taken to ensure that facilitation happens, in order to allow us to obtain maximum benefit and make maximum contribution?

Mr Hughes:

A report and survey completed by the Youth Council this year highlighted several barriers to young people participating in the Youth in Action programme. Some of those included a lack of knowledge about the programme. One difficulty is that it tends to be targeted at language students in schools and, in the non-formal education sector, through youth services in the Youth Council. It needs to be much broader than that, and we need to share that information and knowledge with more people.

There is a difficulty around human resources and a youth worker’s ability to lead groups. There is a difficulty with terms and conditions around the joint negotiating council: some education and library boards adopt it and some do not. The terms and conditions of employment restrict the ability of a youth worker to lead international work, and that issue must be addressed.

There are also myths to dispel. Managers and manageresses see it as a junket and as a number of young people going away for a hoo-ha in France, Germany or wherever. It is much more than that.

I will share the experiences of a recent case study carried out on a young person we work with. Conor was 14 years of age when he became involved in international work. He comes from a single-parent household and had limited educational attainment. His family is socially excluded and his single-parent mother is caught in a benefit trap. His first participation in the Youth in Action programme was an exchange with Germany focusing on bringing down the walls, which looked at intolerance in society.

It was a comparison between Northern Ireland and racial inequality in Germany. He has since gone on to take part in a Youth Initiatives project and is taking part in a Swedish exchange this year. This month, he has taken up employment with Public Achievement: he has a conditional offer from the University of Ulster at Jordanstown; he is leading 40 young people to Bonn this month and is hosting a further 25 young people in Dublin from London. This is all from a young person who now has a beautiful set of tools, but who lives in what is the most socially and economically deprived community in the country.

There is potential if the barriers are lifted, and there is evidence that proves that this can be a really effective and successful intervention for young people. It can cover all abilities and all opportunities. The difficulty is that some subtle changes are needed and that those are embedded in future policy and procedure.

Ms Sweeney:

Of all the barriers that exist, one of the key barriers — across the board — is the fact that there is a lack of recognition of the value of participation in international work by young people, youth workers and organisations. Until that is addressed, it makes it very difficult for that type of work to receive any kind of priority status or understanding. For that reason, we are hopeful that it will become more integrated and understood within the new education and skills authority. It makes it difficult for us to promote the programme at times, despite our intentions to do so across the Province, because if managers are being blocked higher up the ranks, then it is almost a futile task. We try hard to promote our activities.

The youth workers and young people with whom we come into contact are very keen and eager to take part, but the blockages appear when it comes to looking for time off from the youth centre. When teachers leave their schools they are covered by substitute teachers, but that facility does not exist in the non-formal education sector. One key barrier is the lack of recognition of the value of the impact and benefits which, for many young people, are life changing. One strand of the programme is all about young people, as individuals, taking part in European voluntary service. It targets specifically marginalised young people, many of whom have had no employment or opportunities in the past, nor have they opportunities for the future.

Those young people, some of whom have been homeless in the past, have been able to obtain placements in organisations that meet their needs, and, at the end of one year, have a wonderful tool in front of them — a CV. They have gained significant skills, a new language, and a new opportunity for the future. That is life changing. However, the value and recognition of that is often lost. Partly, that is because, over the past couple of years, there has been turmoil within the sector due to the emergence of the education and skills authority and the delay of that coming into being. Other areas have been prioritised over international work, and yet the key aspects of what we are driving home through this programme — citizenship, social inclusion, cultural diversity — are key issues within youth services.

Mr Shannon:

Thank you for your presentation. Your submission refers to both formal and non-formal education, and states that Northern Ireland must not be passive within the EU. When we were in Europe, one thing that they were keen to ensure continued and, indeed, be enhanced, was the exchanges that Corinna mentioned. Personally, I do not think that there is a lack of enthusiasm, keenness or energy in relation to that. Will you tell me exactly what you mean by formal and non-formal education? I presume that that is not only to do with international exchanges. Perhaps you will give us some idea of what you see as the difference between those definitions, and how you see those sectors being enhanced and strengthened.

Ms Sweeney:

The opportunities provided through the Youth in Action programme, in particular, extend far beyond youth exchange activities. They include job shadowing opportunities for youth workers and organisations, sharing of best practice, European voluntary service, and opportunities to liaise at policy and organisational levels. That programme is specifically targeted at the non-formal education sector. It complements other programmes, such as Comenius and Leonardo, which target the vocational-training sector and the formal education sector. The passivity that we refer to is not among youth workers or young people. It is among those at a higher level with the power to give greater priority to this area and who are, perhaps, choosing not to do so.

We are organising a study visit to Brussels next month in which two representatives from the Department of Education, one representative from the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and colleagues from the youth-service sector will be taking part. The aim is to not just to learn more about that particular programme, but to see how other countries work with their young people in trying to roll-out greater levels of participation. We want to ensure that young people gain a greater sense of their European identity and of where they fit within the map of Europe. Before we can do that, they need to learn about their own identity and their own democratic processes and procedures. The programme allows young people to do that, and to use that knowledge as a stepping stone to becoming more fully aware at a European level.

Mr Shannon:

Do you feel that the system is in place but that a commitment at higher levels has not been given?

Ms Sweeney:

Yes, the funding is there. We are delighted to see that in the ‘Priorities for European Engagement’, the Department of Education is committed to delivering in certain areas, and that is a first step. There is no international strategy for education in Northern Ireland — although it has been referred to and tinkered with on many occasions in the past, it still does not exist.

Mr Guilfoyle:

In answer to Mr Shannon’s question, we are not saying that our colleagues are not interested. In fact, our colleagues — in common with many people in the public sector — are very heavily involved in the aftermath of the review of public administration, and there are many things happening in that area. We are trying to say that in the midst of all the changes, which affect my own organisation, we should not lose sight of the importance of this particular area of work. It would be very easy for it to be forgotten about. However, it has many wider benefits, such as those that Corinna and Stephen referred to. We are pleased that our Department is taking this seriously. There is great potential for this to figure within the new Priorities for Youth, and we want to make sure that we do not take our eye off the ball at this very important time.

Mr Hughes:

The workers are keen to develop that further. There is great scope for that to be a much bigger element of education provision. The finances required to make that happen are in the European Community, but some tinkering is required to enable the staff to make that happen. The staff are restricted by the terms and conditions that exist. The matter is very economically driven. The issue is about paying staff — that could be done by providing the enhanced payments that are required for overnight residential work or by giving them time off in lieu. A small amount of money in that funding stream would enable us to lever so much more out of the Youth in Action programme.

Ms Anderson:

You mentioned the Department of Education’s priority for European engagement. The Department has worked with the Youth Council and Youth First to assist it with its draft policy submissions for the EU common objectives on youth. One can see that commitment reflected in its action plan for 2008-2010, in which it set out its commitment to recognising, encouraging and supporting the use of European youth programmes. I am trying to tease out your concern about the ESA. Are you receiving any feedback that that commitment may not be reflected in the ESA, or are you just flagging that up as something that you want to see reflected in the ESA?

Are there other Departments that you would like to follow the model that is being presented by the Education Department in relation to its commitments, action plan and the work that it is doing with your organisation? Primarily, I am thinking about the Department for Employment and Learning and other Departments that assist young people.

Corinna, your enthusiasm came across clearly in your presentation; it was almost palpable. It is great that you have had that experience. Obviously, you have to broaden your horizons but, without wanting to hold you back, we need people like you to stay here in the North — I would hate for us to lose you.

Mr Guilfoyle:

The fact that two of our colleagues from the youth service branch of the Department of Education are here today indicates the strong interest that that branch has. We and our colleagues in the statutory and voluntary youth service sector work very closely with it in trying to bring the issue to the fore. Now that times have changed, it is very difficult to keep all the balls in the air, which is why we are saying that although it is a relatively small area of work, its importance far exceeds the amount of money that is involved.

As a number of Members pointed out, substantial amounts of money are available, which is why my colleague Bernice Sweeney and others ran a training course last week in Belfast for 20 people — many of whom were from Northern Ireland and Southern Ireland — to make them aware of the opportunities that exist. That is one dimension of our work.

The education and skills authority will present tremendous opportunities for closer working between formal and non-formal education. That work is yet to be addressed. In our submissions to the Department of Education regarding the education and skills authority we are flagging up a lot of issues, of which that is one.

The other issue to which you very wisely referred was that of other Departments. Over the years, the Youth Council has had a very close working relationship with the children and young people’s unit in OFMDFM. For example, a number of years ago we worked on developing common objectives with that unit. That is important because the 10-year strategy for children and young people is cross-cutting — it captures every Department. Many of the benefits to which Corrinna and Stephen referred impact on not only OFMDFM, they impact on the Department for Employment and Learning, the Department of Culture, Arts and Leisure, the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, and so forth.

Wearing another hat of mine, the Youth Council in conjunction with other Departments has — touch wood — today submitted a bid for Peace III funding. That bid would involve us with the Department for Employment and Learning in the North and FÁS in the South. Looking at the wider picture, we must educate young people about the benefits that accrue for them. We in the Youth Service — both youth workers and young people — feel that we can contribute a lot to that wider picture.

The Chairperson (Mr Kennedy) in the Chair.

Mr Elliott:

Thank you for the presentation. I know that the particular project on which you have focused today deals with people aged between 13 and 30. What is the normal age range with which the Youth Council deals?

Mr Guilfoyle:

The official youth service age range that the Department of Education recognises is from four to 25 years of age. The upper limit that Europe tends to use is 25 years of age. However, as is quite rightly pointed out in the documentation, that extends up to 30 years of age for certain EU-funded programmes. I will let Bernice pick up on the story from this point.

Ms Sweeney:

Young people, including young leaders, aged from 13 to 30 can take part in the programme. There is no age limit for youth workers or those who represent organisations, so people from across the age spectrum can take part. Specifically, young people up to the age of 30 can take part in order to allow young leaders to move forward and progress through the programme.

Mr Elliott:

My main question relates to the one that Jim Shannon asked. In your presentation, you said that the Youth Council feels strongly that education, both formal and non-formal, has been overlooked as regards its European dimensions. That is a fairly bold and deliberate statement. Can you expand on that? I know that you went into a bit of detail, Bernice, but will you explain why is that work not happening on the ground, and what can be done to address that? Stephen mentioned one or two issues about tinkering with things to make that happen.

Mr Guilfoyle:

I will give the historical background to that issue. For a number of years, the Youth Council has advocated the recognition of international work in the Department’s education policy. There is great sympathy for that being the case. However, due to other big issues affecting the education sector, the issue of international work has not had the chance to be addressed in the way in which it could have been.

Particularly given the interest of the Committee and the Department, we hope that there will be an opportunity to rewrite a policy and strategy for international work. Such a strategy will provide international work with a broad direction and a higher profile, meaning that everyone will feel that it is an important of area of work. In practice, part of that will involve providing information and training people. Stephen might want to comment on that aspect.

Mr Hughes:

As regards policy and practice, there are some simple things in which we need to participate and that we need to influence. There is a number of conferences, training courses and events that take place across Europe that we need to be seen participating in. We also want to influence the various policies that exist to ensure that we have embedded the best interests of young people into them.

It is OK for me, as someone from the voluntary sector, to attend those events, but is difficult for staff in the statutory sector. They cannot jump on a plane to attend a conference somewhere in Europe, even though the cost of doing so is usually paid fully for them. It does not have a cost for us because it tends to be paid for through the Youth in Action programme.

It is difficult for workers who have been away, because they do not get time off in lieu to spend with their families when they return. We have a group heading off to Germany in the summer for two weeks. Some of the group members are married but, when they come home, they will not be entitled to two weeks off or enhanced payments for the time they are away. That is insensitive. Sometimes, it is quite difficult for people if they are not given recognition or time off to help and support their families when they come back. Providing time off in lieu or enhanced payments is a simple and practical step that can be taken to recognise the work that people do.

Ms Sweeney:

It is sad that, nowadays, it is almost possible for a young person to go through school without having been required to learn, or become proficient in, a foreign language. Young people can leave school with little understanding of what it is really like to interface and engage with a young person from another culture.

Through this programme, we are not simply targeting high-flyers or language students. We are targeting every young person who has the opportunity to take part in this programme. The programme is important for young people, such as those who leave school at the age of 16, because it will equip them with the skills to deal in a respectful manner with their peers from other cultures and other countries whom they are likely to meet in a work setting.

Sadly, young people in Northern Ireland can be a bit isolated in that respect, unlike young people from Belgium, France or any of the other countries where young people have constant exposure to people from other countries and cultures.

Mr Hughes:

An experience that youth workers often report is the lack of social and life skills that our young people bring to the exchange programmes. When we engage with some of our European partners, our young people tend to look, not unprepared, but perhaps not as able as their European counterparts. I am here today to try to convey that to the Committee.

The Youth in Action programme is a very intensive piece of youth work. It is 24 hours a day, and it tends to be held over a week or two weeks in an environment that can often be quite difficult, although we try to prepare our young people for that. I will share some of our experiences with the Committee.

When we took our group to Germany, they were in bed for 10.00 pm or 10.30 pm at the latest. Our young people thought that that was quite strange because normally they go to bed at 12.30 am or 1.00 am, but in Germany they had to get up at 6.00 am. When they went to McDonalds, they had access to beer, and the youth centre that we stayed in had beer on tap. Those are examples of the cultural and social differences that we have to overcome.

Our young people reap massive benefits from the Youth in Action programme very quickly, and those benefits have long-term impacts. It is genuinely possible to see a significant change in a young person who has been away to an international conference or who has been on an exchange programme.

Ms Thompson:

To back up what Mr Hughes has said, that is what I feel that a lot of people do not understand about international relations. If you throw yourself into a group of 12 people, it is like a ‘Big Brother’ experience: you are all living in a big house for 10 days, and you have to do everything together.

The Chairperson:

We have a ‘Big Brother’ experience here; there are 108 of us. [Laughter.]

Ms Thompson:

Some people might think that international exchange is somewhat of a holiday for the youth workers and the young people, but we had a lot of heavy sessions. We had a session that was a flag workshop where we had —

Mrs D Kelly:

I have done a few of those. [Laughter.]

Ms Thompson:

We had to sit down and really think about what we thought about ourselves, and it was really heavy. Stephen has mentioned that youth workers do not get time off in lieu and people might think that they are getting a paid holiday, but it is really hard. You are running around for 24 hours a day; it is really intensive. It is loads of fun, it is brilliant, but emotionally, it is not torture, but it is quite emotionally heavy a lot of the time.

The Chairperson:

It is draining.

Ms Thompson:

Yes; just having to look at yourself critically and think, am I am alright here? It is really hard, so it is important to recognise that. I have just explained it in the craziest way.

The Chairperson:

We did warn you that you are being recorded by Hansard; that report is going to read very well. [Laughter.]

Ms Sweeney:

A key thing to note is that the young people who take part in this particular programme opt into it. They are not forced into it; they volunteer for the programme. It is not part of a requirement through school where they have to tick a box; they do it because they enjoy it.

Mr Hughes:

It is also a chance for our young people to effect change in other parts of the world. Our young people are doing voluntary service in various countries; not only in Europe, but all around the Mediterranean and Asia. They are out there effecting change in other, less fortunate people’s lives. That is a great reflection on us as well, and it is an aspect of the programme that should be celebrated.

Mrs D Kelly:

Thank you for your presentation. I have great admiration for people who invest their time and energy in working with our young people. A finding that we have heard from other groups that have made submissions to the Committee is the importance of networking and having a communication flow. Some of those submissions were from youth groups. You said that you have worked well with the children and young people’s unit in the past — is the situation the same today? Are we able to maximise all the available opportunities to improve communication that are coming out of Europe? Is the match funding to do so available?

Mr Guilfoyle:

I will deal with a couple of those points and then hand over to my colleague Bernice to deal with the others.

The answer to your first question is yes; only this morning I was at a meeting about play and leisure policies with Nicola Drennan from the children and young people’s unit. Our links with the unit continue; indeed, Caroline Evans from the unit is going to Brussels with us.

We maintain that link because we feel that it is important, given the overarching responsibility of OFMDFM to update the strategy for children and young people. We are part of a number of networks, some of which extend beyond Northern Ireland. One is ERYICA, the European Youth Information and Counselling Agency. We represent Northern Ireland on that group, and have been involved with it for 16 or 17 years. It keeps Northern Ireland in the loop as to information services across Europe. However, there are much wider networks also — I will ask Bernice to elaborate on that.

Ms Sweeney:

Participation in the Youth in Action programme has allowed us to establish partnerships with other organisations outside the youth work sector. For example, we work closely with Bryson House, which is heavily involved in the European Voluntary Service, as well as other organisations scattered around Northern Ireland that are now tapping into that part of the programme.

The RNIB’s youth group, Eye Matter, has taken part in that programme — its members have been involved in job-shadowing schemes with young blind people from other countries. In rolling out the programme, we have established strong links with the Youth Justice Agency. There are opportunities to develop networks not only within Northern Ireland, but externally. We hope that, as part of the study visit to Brussels next month, those networks will be reinforced and expanded on.

The question of how much match funding is available depends on what part of the programme one looks at. There is 100% funding available for groups under the youth initiatives programme. That is a part of the Youth in Action programme that provides for locally based projects that have an impact on their communities and that deal with issues that are perceived by young people to be of relevance to young people in other European countries. If those groups satisfy the criteria for that programme, which is easy to do, they can access up to 100% of the €10,000 budget.

Similarly, 100% funding is available for job-shadowing opportunities for youth workers. We provide up to 70% of the travel costs for youth exchanges. For schemes that involve hosting incoming groups, there is a requirement to look for additional funding. We provide lower levels of funding for such schemes, but fund-raising is part of what is done by the young people who are acting as hosts. For youth democracy projects, up to €50,000, representing up to 75% of the total eligible costs of the project, may be drawn down. Significant amounts of funding are available. We do not rush projects. There is a preparatory, lead-in phase to look for additional funds, and often those can be in-kind funds.

The Chairperson:

That completes our questions. Thank you for your attendance, your presentations and your answers. If there is any additional information that you wish to furnish the Committee with, we will be happy to receive it. If we have any queries, we will be in contact with you to address them.

Mr Guilfoyle:

I thank the Committee for the opportunity to attend today, for its interest and encouragement. We trust that members recognise the wide benefits from, and impact of, our work. We welcome your support in achieving further developments in this area of work. If there is anything that we can do to help to support the Committee in this important field of work, please do not hesitate to contact us. Thank you again for your time.

Mrs D Kelly:

May I just ask a final question? If a youth group were to apply for the €10,000 grant, should it apply to Europe or to your office?

Ms Sweeney:

Processes are changing. We provide support to organisations and young people to help them with their applications. We have also put in place a system of coaching, wherein coaches can be identified to work alongside the groups and support them with their applications. Those coaches will be youth workers and, I hope, young leaders in the future.

Mrs D Kelly:

Thank you very much.

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