Margarita Petkova our Young Ambassador for Northern Ireland talks about her experience representing young people of the UK in a European Youth Conference in Slovakia as part of Structured Dialogue. Margarita focused on identifying and combating the growing pressure and the high expectations put on young people by society, their family, peers and institutions.
The preparation process:
The preparations for the EU Youth Conference in Kosice, Slovakia started many months before the event took place. The first conference from the V cycle of the Structured Dialogue, which was held in Amsterdam in early April, helped outline the challenges that young people are currently facing on the chosen priority of the cycle, namely “Enabling all young people to engage in diverse, connected and inclusive Europe – ready for life, ready for society”. This guiding framework served as a basis to launch consultations that were carried out amongst young people across Europe. The research and consultations were based on six questions agreed by all Member states during the previous EU Youth Conference in Amsterdam, which we adapted to the specific challenges that young people in the UK face, especially after the result from the EU referendum in June. More than 1400 people took part in our online survey and workshops across all four nations of the UK, and more than 65,000 young people were reached throughout Europe.
After the consultation period was over, we met in London where we spent a weekend sharing and analysing our findings. Collectively we produced a report, based on the data we collected, which was submitted to the Slovak Presidency prior to the conference. The report addressed the most pressing issues that the young people in the UK are facing, such as the uncertainty of Brexit, racism and religious discrimination, mental health, cuts to youth services and youth provision, better education, specifically PSHE, etc. The report served as the basis of our representation during the conference, and especially when producing recommendations for improving youth policy on these matters. The excitement started to build up.
The Youth Conference:
The time of the conference finally arrived and after long, tiring journey to Kosice, we were finally ready to get to work. After warm welcome speeches by the organisers, the conference started with a National Working Groups Meeting where each delegation had to formulate the three most important messages from the national consultations. It was fascinating to see how similar these messages were from across Europe. To me, this meant that regardless of the socio-economic factors prevailing in each of the EU Member states, the challenges that the European youth face are more or less the same.
During the conference each delegate had the opportunity to participate in one workshop from the choice of eight, all based on the results received from the Europe-wide consultations. I participated in a workshop which was looking at growing pressure and the high expectations put on young people by society, their family, peers and institutions. The workshop focused around the idea that the competitive environment in school, University, work, etc. contributes to the feelings of anxiety and causes confidence issues which can in turn lead to serious mental health problems. We split our workshops into two groups with one focusing on providing young people with the skills they need to build resilience and self-confidence; and another group focusing on improving the access and quality of mental health services.
Developing skills: Particular emphasis was placed on the importance on non-formal education as a means to acquiring essential life-skills and the need for schools, Universities and other educational establishments to allow the time and space for students to participate in non-formal learning activities. All of the delegates in the workshop shared the feeling that non-formal education prepares young people to participate in society and life beyond school, the non-competitive environment of non-formal education allows them to improve their self-esteem and build the mindset that would enable them to fulfil their potential and discover their talents. Thus, the recommendation we produced as a result of this discussion is:
“Considering that expectations to perform competitively are increasing in educational settings, national competent authorities must ensure that young people have enough time and space for activities that help them to build resilience, self-awareness and self-confidence.”
Mental Health: The second recommendation focused on urging the governments of the EU Member states to provide more support in improving the access and quality of mental health services, as well as introduce mental health and wellbeing education which will help break the stigma associated with having a mental health condition. The recommendation we agreed on is as follow:
“National competent authorities should implement education on mental wellbeing and mental health, both through the formal education system and in the non-formal environment. The goal is to break stigma through raising awareness as well as to enable young people to learn how to maintain their mental health and how to communicate with their peers on the issue.”
We had the opportunity to present our draft recommendations to the rest of the delegates at the conference at the so-called ‘Agora’. The Agora represents a structured feedback amongst all eight workshops where delegates could vote for which of the recommendations from each workshop is best and should be presented to EU decision-makers. For the first time ever since the start of the Structured Dialogue, there was a parallel online feedback with the wider public through a website called Slido. As the conference was life-streamed at all times, anyone who was watching us online could ask a question or leave their comment on the recommendations we were working on, or the panel discussions in which we were engaged. After the Agora, we went back to our respective workshops and started rewriting our recommendations with the comments we had received from our fellow delegates until we agreed on the above statements.
The next conference of the V Structured Dialogue cycle in Malta next year will look at developing a ‘policy toolbox’ for implementing these recommendations on a national and EU level. Until then, we are taking these recommendations back to the UK and will hold meetings with policy makers from the national and devolved governments to devise the best way to put these ideas into practice. We will also aim to engage an even higher number of young people on these recommendations and discuss what specific policy changes they would like to see.
Trying to create a policy that would be relevant to 28 different countries with entirely different socio-economic environments, histories, cultures and traditions, is challenging, to say the least. However, I am very happy that I had the opportunity to work with very enthusiastic and open-minded young people who really put their hearts and minds into this project. I am very hopeful that our work will have a positive impact for young people all across Europe and will inspire many to get involved in their communities and democracy locally, nationally and internationally.