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The best of times, the worst of times

On the 12th October, I delivered this speech to the delegates at The Award’s Forum in Cluj, Romania:

Many of you will know the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ novel, A tale of two cities. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times… it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to heaven, we were all going direct the other way”. For many of us, I guess, the last four years of our lives have felt very much like that – as we have faced challenges unprecedented in our lifetimes.

For the young people we seek to serve, those challenges have been equally profound. Many of our Bronze Award participants have spent 10% of their lives in lockdown. Young people – particularly young women and girls – are more isolated, more at risk, more vulnerable to mental health challenges and more likely to be the victims of domestic and gender-based violence than before.

Young people have concerns about their studies and exam pressures. Education has become an area of a young person’s life rife with the pressures of competition. Academic expectations are higher than ever as more people each year are expected to enter post-secondary education.

Despite more young people than ever gaining academic qualifications, there remains a perception that young people are unprepared for work. And on top of this attitude, many are also paid less than previous generations.

This leads itself to increased concerns about financial instability. As education and housing costs rise, young people are unable easily to chart a course for their future.

More young people than ever are experiencing mental health difficulties. This can affect all areas of their life: home, school, friendships and relationships. There remains a stigma surrounding mental health.
The rise of social media has had a significant impact on the lives of young people. While it is a way to share creative and fun ideas, the social media world is both complex and confusing, and poses significant risks.

We have been aware of the climate crisis for decades already. The responsibility to save the planet is on the shoulders of today’s young generations
And 2022 has presented us with a new global challenge, as Russia invaded Ukraine, causing terror in that country, displacing thousands of Ukrainians and resulting in knock on effects around the world. I will return to how the Award has reacted to this, a little later.

There can be no doubt that we are living in uncertain times: Uncertainty over the future is a major concern for many young people. The pandemic has highlighted and accentuated social inequalities; people are expressing deep financial concerns as we head further into a global recession.

And, whilst every generation has had to contend with challenges, the pace of challenge at the moment seems to be both relentless and snowballing.

And yet, and yet. The Award has been there. We have seen extraordinary resilience. Young people have supported their communities. They have been at the forefront of tackling the negative impacts of COVID-19 since the start of the pandemic. I have watched, with, dare I say it, avuncular pride, the volunteering activities of Award participants, the ways in which they have kept themselves physically and emotionally fit, their commitment to keep going, to never give up. They have lived their Award values like never before. We all know, in this room, of stories of courage, stories of hope, stories of kindness. We have seen the best of times, just as we have seen the worst of times.

We have always known that the Award holds within it immense opportunity for young people to succeed.
We know that getting a good education helps young people get a head-start in meeting life’s challenges.

We know that getting a good education is not just about preparing a young person for work; we miss the point if we think it is just about the economic sustainability of our nations. It is about the flourishing of the human spirit.

We know that getting a good education means having access to great teaching, of the right academic subjects, in well-resourced classrooms, through formal education; but we also know that it means the development of character, knowledge, skills, attitudes, values and critical understanding – along with healthy doses of grit and resilience; through planned and sustained participation in educational activities outside the classroom – what we (and increasingly many, many others) call non-formal education and learning – a phrase I’ve been proud to champion over the last few years in a variety of places, alongside my friend and international trustee colleague, Professor Howard Williamson

We know that good non-formal education and learning have a profound effect on young people and society. Good non-formal education and learning can help young people to realise their potential, build resilient communities and provide local solutions to some of the world’s most pressing concerns.

We know that, where policy makers, influencers, educators, business and community leaders value non-formal education and learning, then activity flourishes and impact increases.

We know that celebrating that activity, through certification, through badges of recognition and through helping people tell stories of achievement, helps to amplify that impact.

We know that the Award is an excellent framework for educational organisations and institutions to use, both to deliver good non-formal education and learning to young people, and to celebrate their achievement.

We know that the Award is the leading global accreditation of non-formal education and learning – and that it is unique in its consistent implementation around the world.

In 2018, the Association launched a Global Strategy for the Award. At its heart was the global ambition, that, in time, every eligible young person aged between 14 and 24 should have the opportunity to participate.

That global ambition. So simple. So full of possibility. And, in my opinion, still, so relevant.
Let me remind you of the key areas of focus of that global strategy we launched four years ago :
• Access: Improving access for new and diverse groups of young people, overcoming barriers to the Award.
• Reach: Increasing the social infrastructure and geographic reach of the Award.
• Impact: Improving the impact and quality of delivery.

I was knocked out by the commitment shown by so many of you to align your own plans with the global strategy. You started conversations in many national boards about making it easier for young people to access the Award. You took action to build capacity so that the Award has the people, the tools and the places to manage higher numbers of young people, from a wider diversity of backgrounds. You improved the training and development of volunteers.

You already know that, for our part, the Foundation immediately began to act and developed its own strategy to address each of the areas of focus.

We began to trial new, innovative ways of delivering the Award in different locations through new partnerships;

we began to develop a new awareness strategy for the Award internationally;

we worked hard to future proof the Award for a digital age by providing, updating and renewing our global platforms;

we continued to implement robust and effect governance processes and procedures through our licensing procedures;

we used the World Fellowship and other global fundraising initiatives to support growth initiatives of operators and other delivery partners;

we began to update and improve our training for Award Leaders;

we forged a new partnership with Heriot Watt University to provide executive learning;

we developed a new offering for alumni;

and we committed considerable resource to what is now award winning impact research.

You can read more about all these initiatives in our report to the International Council on the last four years of work – and there’s a copy available to download via the Forum App.

At this moment, I would like to acknowledge the tremendous support we have received from our global family of donors, some of whom are in the room this afternoon. During the quadrennium, we have received the substantial gift of the leasehold to our office Award House, in London, from the family of our former Landlord, the Ho family from Hong Kong. Thank you, Daisy and family for this extraordinarily generous gesture. To all our donors, as World Fellows, giving to support International Special Projects, contributing to the new Founder’s Fund, or supporting the work of individual Operators, with time, talent and resource, your help is immeasurably important – and I’d ask us all present to give our supporters, those here and absent friends, a hearty round of applause.

When the pandemic struck, all of us had to pivot, swiftly and decisively, to ensure that young people continued to be supported by their Award activities through unprecedented times. In many parts of the world, we moved to online provision. As an Association, we swiftly reviewed our programme guidelines and made adjustments; adopted technology to help us communicate more easily and effectively with each other and with participants; created new partnerships with multinational agencies to provide funding for global youth mobilization in the face of the pandemic; told the story of non-formal education and learning – and its impact – to a world that now recognised the importance of voluntary service, community resilience, mental and physical health.

With this, came opportunities for partnerships and new ways of working, such as the ground-breaking Global Youth Mobilization project; a partnership between the Big Six Youth Organisations, supported by the World Health Organization, United Nations Foundation and the COVID-19 Solidarity Response Fund. Working alongside the national operators of the Big Six, the project enabled young people to create their own solutions to help their communities tackle the pandemic. The project has subsequently developed and launched a unique direct micro-funding platform for youth-led local solutions.

To date, more than 250 projects have been funded, supporting in excess of 800,000 community beneficiaries, with activity and funding still underway.

Despite the success of initiatives like GYM, as a result of the pandemic, it is true that many areas of our global strategy stalled, but others, particularly those linked to digital innovation and partnerships and advocacy accelerated. And, whilst many of the challenges and opportunities faced by Award Operators and the young people they seek to serve remain constant, the world is now a different place.

This quadrennium has seen a drop in Award involvement globally, however this is now starting to recover – and indeed resurge. 2019 saw a reduction of participant numbers due to the disbandment of the Singapore NAO and subsequent removal of Singapore’s totals from the global statistics. 2020’s figures then saw a further drop as the pandemic set in, during which time the majority of NAOs experienced a reduction in involvement figures.

Participant numbers began to recover in 2021, where Active Participant numbers increased by 32%, New Entrants increased by 27% and Award Gained by 19%.
The pandemic did bring the importance of non-formal education and learning to the front of so many people’s minds. Headteachers and school principals WhatsApped me, telling me that the structure provided by the Award framework, was providing an excellent scaffold for young people’s learning and development. In such a volatile space, helping young people to unlock skills such as resilience, adaptability, problem solving, communication, leadership and agency – all whilst encouraging physical and mental wellbeing and skill development – has never been more important. And the world’s leaders are realising this.

Commonwealth Education Ministers at their summit in 2018 acknowledged the contribution of non-formal learning to supporting young people and building their resilience.

This sparked the idea of a Commonwealth partnership with existing youth organisations to promote and expand non-formal education and youth leadership in its 54 countries, and led to the birth of the Commonwealth Non-Formal Education Alliance.

It includes commitments to work together to promote volunteerism; offer young people the practical experiences needed to compete in the labour market; create an environment where collaboration and innovation can thrive; and support the development of leadership and useful life skills.

Speaking at the signing, Commonwealth Secretary-General, the Rt Hon Patricia Scotland QC said:
“This Alliance was built to help us re-imagine education, creating services to our young people, which ensure they have all the practical support they need to be innovators, change-makers and to truly take charge of their future.”

At last month’s UN General Assembly, we saw a leaders’ summit being held on education – the first time that this has ever happened. And we saw conversations going on that broadened leaders understanding of education beyond the walls of the classroom.

Recognition for the importance of non-formal education and learning is gaining momentum. And the possibilities for the Award to reach more young people, inspiring them to discover their infinite potential and be ready for the world have never been greater.

A little earlier, I mentioned the war in Ukraine. It has left thousands of people displaced and the impact on young Ukrainians has been particularly severe. However the Award teams here in Romania, in partnership with those in Slovakia and the Czech Republic quickly saw how the Award could be used to support young Romanian refugees at this crucial time.

We know that the Award’s focus on developing community service, peacebuilding, social action, improved physical and mental health and resilience is crucial for all young people and particularly refugee communities – and communities in turmoil. We hope that every young Ukrainian aged 14-24 will be supported by a young Czech, Slovak and Romanian buddy during their stay in the countries, for at least the first 12 months after their arrival.

The Award has signed an historic agreement with the UN agency, UNICEF, which will also enable us to work with other UN agencies in the future. UNICEF see themselves as more than just a sponsor of this project, and will provide resources and support to the activities happening in country. There is also the opportunity to take this model and scale it up in other countries in the future.

The worst of times; the best of times. What we have learned over the past four years will help to inform what we now want to achieve. Based on what has been achieved, you should be approaching the discussions we are going to have over the next few days about the future with confidence and optimism.

This Forum gives us the opportunity, not to build back, but to forge forward faster and fairer. We have the chance to take stock and work together to build a strategy that can take us up to 2030. That work, of course, has already begun. A year ago, we started the conversations that have brought us to this point. And tomorrow I will provide a summary of what you’ve already told us – and pose a few questions, before handing over to a number of National Directors who volunteered to work on framing our plans for the next two triennia. But that’s for tomorrow, when we roll our sleeves up and get thinking about the future.

I began with a quotation from Charles Dickens. I’ll end with one from him as well, this time from David Copperfield, as we look forward to forging forward, faster and fairer. ““The most important thing in life is to stop saying, ‘I wish’ and start saying, ‘I will’. Consider nothing impossible, then treat possibilities as probabilities.”

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