Civil society organisations help everyone develop skills for the future. The ETF's Siria Taurelli tells us why

Of all the establishments offering lifelong learning opportunities, there’s one sector which is frequently forgotten: the “third sector” of society, outside government and business, also known as civil society organisations (CSOs). Very different to usual educational and training settings, these charities, associations and cooperatives not only manage to reach many users outside the mainstream. They also provide settings in which unusual or unorthodox skills can be nurtured and put into practice.

The ETF’s Siria Taurelli is the team leader and coordinator of a group of experts on governance, quality assurance, policy frameworks and financing.

“We realised about six or seven years ago that in talking about lifelong learning it’s natural to approach this sector. CSOs are part of a constellation that supply and develop skills and we should see them as an integral part of a lifelong learning system,” Taurelli says.

But as CSOs are often informal, disparate, poorly funded and even ideologically reluctant to scale up, it’s challenging to draw them into an established education system. Taurelli and her team began the process by initiating a mapping exercise.

“We started by identifying who they are in several partner countries. We analysed and documented the tools and methods they used. We organised workshops in each country to discuss issues and to ask ‘What are you doing for education and training?’ That was a very important step, because sometimes there’s no awareness within these organisations that they’re actually contributors to a bigger system.”

Taurelli believes that these third sector spaces provide a vital function:

“No school or training centre would see advocacy as part of their job. But CSOs give a voice to values, they give a voice to people who are very often unheard because they’re unschooled, unemployed, part of a minority or simply poor. This advocacy itself requires skills and expertise.”

Taurelli suggests that it's not about formal teaching, because these organisations don’t necessarily have a syllabus or deliver modules, adding that those at the helms of CSOs often see themselves as advisors, coaches and counsellors.

"They’re very often dealing with people at disadvantage, not only instructing but accompanying them and developing potential.”

Taurelli calls it “educational cross-cutting”: developing communication capabilities, self-confidence, improving language or digital skills and so on.

“These organisations have more comfortable, welcoming learning environments: there is less of teacher-student hierarchy and more peer-to-peer exchange in flexible settings, often outside or in nature,” Taurelli suggests.

But the benefits of this sort of “innovative pedagogy” is very concrete: CSOs help clients and users navigate public administration offices, deal with the nitty-gritty of local employment offices and enrol in public programmes.

“What we have done”, Taurelli says, “is try to raise their profile and boost the potential of these organisations in partner countries, even change the way they see themselves.”

Conferences have been organised in Turin and Brussels so that European public institutions are aware of this engagement.

“We’re fostering conversations and ideas-exchanges. We’re trying to open up and facilitate dialogues between CSOs and Ministers of Education and Labour in partner countries. Because it’s important that these two sides meet and talk to each other.”

“The aim is to show to the government side that CSOs can be credible interlocutors and that it’s worth having them regularly at the table. Because these organisations know much better than anyone else the learning needs of people who are not in education, training or employment.”

It’s about inclusivity. As Taurelli suggests, there are people who are outside national infrastructures for whom opportunities to access the system should be multiplied. There’s a very important trend everywhere: more inequalities and people becoming poorer. So in order to put everyone on track and be able to lead a decent living with a good quality job and a good education, there is a need for lifelong learning to be a reality, hence more providers and actors to be engaged.

As in all dialogues, there is reticence on both sides and doubts that need to be overcome.

From the institutional side, there’s hesitation “because CSOs are not part of the system, they’re not subject to quality assurance and educational standards, which is of course an issue.”

It doesn’t help that the third sector also tends towards fragmentation.

“You cannot confine them into certain boundaries. They have politically different views, some have religious beliefs.” It’s difficult for governments to listen to CSOs when “there is no unified representation, since they cover the whole spectrum of political environment and can be in competition with each other.”

From the perspective of the CSOs, there’s occasionally suspicion about engaging with administrators who are perceived as having bureaucratic approaches that can reinforce inequalities and exclusion.

“Community-based associations do not identify as institutionalised partners of the government. Most organisations are small and there’s a preference to remain small, to remain loyal to their mission as stated at the outset, and stay independent. They’re well-rooted locally, often enjoying a good dialogue already with municipal services. That’s the beauty of these organisations, but that does add to the fragmentation.”

Taurelli notes that the aim should not be a total normalisation of CSOs, as it’s important to have organisations that are independent and diverse, that have their own approach. Independence, evaluation and criticism are a plus. Thus we’re not talking about the integration of CSOs, but dialogue about quality and accessible education and training.

But if CSOs can become more professionalised, there are huge benefits:

“CSOs can build further on their strengths, such as their knowledge of training needs, they can advocate for structured dialogue as opposed to occasional meetings, accept compliance with quality assurance frameworks, there could be more funding and political leverage.”

There are also clear benefits to governments from this nascent dialogue: raising the floor of educational attainment, including more citizens within the labour force and reducing unemployment benefits.

“Collecting the opinions of CSOs is to the advantage of any government. Any step – agreements, regular consultations, public meetings – can be beneficial.” 

“Although this takes time – and there’s a tension between the urgency of CSOs and the timeframe of public administration – both sides have to make a step, to give up something and accept there is more important object to be attained.”

There are many examples of this dialogue bearing fruit. In Ukraine, there is a council for the civil society sector within the Ministry of Education, which before the war produced draft legislation on adult learning. In Albania, we’ve seen how CSOs can be a bridge between people facing adversity and the public sector, providing support services to vulnerable young people in order to access employment opportunities. In Morocco, CSOs are offering training to potential migrants heading towards Spain, Portugal and Italy: there are NGOs offering training to these prospective migrants so that they are able to work. But they’re also being made aware of their rights and taught how legislation offers protections to them.

“It’s not easy to gain recognition for CSOs as part of a learning environment”, says Taurelli. “It’s a process and history tells us that it takes time before parties talk to each other. They have to agree to disagree, to find a compromise…”

But the prize is worth the effort.

“Civil society is very vibrant within the EU, with hundreds of thousands of organisations that play a role in human capital development: facilitating access to good quality employment and learning at any age, regardless of the users’ social background or economic position. We should have in mind for the EU and its neighbours a wide civic space, made of a common fabric.”

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