Co-operation and flexibility needed in youth education

Clara Puranen, NVL, DialogWeb

Collaboration and flexible structures make up the recipe for combatting social exclusion (the people portrayed in the photo are not associated with the text). Photo: Mette Mjöberg Tegnander/norden.orgFolk high schools play an important role in many Swedish initiatives aimed at preventing youth marginalisation. Among the Nordic countries, Sweden has the highest proportion of unemployed and socially excluded young people.

During the past few years, several large-scale initiatives have been started in Sweden to help school dropouts and youth with incomplete upper secondary qualifications. Increasing social exclusion among young people is a problem that plagues all of Europe, and it is taken up in Europa 2020, the EU’s strategy for smart and sustainable growth. One of its targets is that the proportion of youth aged between 16 and 24 not in employment, education or training should be kept below 10 %.

A substantial project focussed on this target is currently in progress in Sweden with funding from the ESF. The project involves education providers, municipalities and non-profit organisations. There are two folk high schools among the eight organisations that have received funding. The participant organisations have been allocated approximately 17 million euros to share between them. However, this sum must be matched by an equal amount of self-financing, which means that a total sum of 34 million euros is being invested in at-risk youth within the framework of the project.

Strong commitment by municipalities

The biggest project is a two-year project called Plug In. It is collaboration between the Swedish Association of Local Authorities and Regions, five Swedish regions, and around fifty municipalities. The goal is to halve the proportion of students who do not complete their upper secondary studies. The participating municipalities organise outreach activities and provide guidance to individual students. In addition, they are trying out new methods in study and career counselling and increasing investment in flexible education.

Forty development projects have been launched, and an important part of the initiative is the survey and analysis which will be done in order to distribute successful models and methods to other municipalities that have not participated in the project. Plug In, which ended in June 2014, has attracted international attention too. One of the results of the project is a national digital platform called Plug Innovation, which provides information about research results and successful initiatives.

One of the people featuring on the PlugInnovations website is Johan Borvén, Plug In’s project leader in the Gothenburg region. According to him, collaboration and flexible structures are the ingredients needed to combat exclusion and to retain students in education. Better co-operation between study and career counsellors, social services, and the employment authorities is necessary too, says Borvén. “The main thing is to always keep in mind what the young person’s situation is. Successful methods have been created in places where new forms of co-operation have been devised between local authorities, schools, and adult education providers, for instance. Mainstream upper secondary schools do not suit everyone. In a school with 1500 students, the same solutions do not work for everyone. Many students need to study at their own pace and in a more peaceful environment; adult education can be a suitable alternative for those students.”

Folk high school boosts study motivation

The so-called folk high school initiative was launched in 2010 as collaboration between the non-formal adult education sector and the public employment service. Job-seekers aged between 16 and 24 who lack a qualification from comprehensive school (i.e., compulsory primary and lower secondary education) or upper secondary school are offered a three-month study motivation course at a folk high school. The number of participants has increased constantly from the very beginning. In 2010 there were a little over 2000 students while in 2013, the number exceeded 5100. Last year, the number of available places was increased to 8000; however, not all of these places are filled.

On the website of Sweden’s public employment service, 22-year-old Christian Pettersson describes his experience of Åsa Folk High School, made possible by the folk high school initiative. ”I didn’t have very positive experiences of studying. I liked upper secondary school to begin with, but after a while I got really tired of school and started missing quite a lot of classes. By the time I left, I had broken the school record by failing in 24 subjects. Studying at a folk high school was very different from upper secondary school. The folk high school is a little more relaxed, there is less pressure. I like that. I felt at home after just a few weeks. Attending folk high school boosted my study motivation; that was definitely the best part of the whole experience. It was great to get an idea of how such a school functions. Now I am going to start studying for the upper secondary qualification at Åsa Folk High School. When I have finished my studies there I plan to apply to the Swedish National Police Academy. My dream is to work as a police officer in England.”

In 2013, study motivation courses where organised at 121 folk high schools. According to a report compiled by the Folk High School Council, nine out of ten of those who completed a study motivation course at a folk high school would recommend it to others. One year after completing the course, 38 % had continued their studies and 14 % were in employment. The report concludes with recommendations, suggesting that courses should be made a permanent fixture from 2015 onwards, that the government should allocate around 13 million euros to finance 2000 student places, and that it should be possible to increase the duration of the 3-month-long course if necessary.

European InfoNet Adult Education, 14.10.2014