/epale/en/file/volunteers-and-professionals-aeVolunteers and professionals in AE
EPALE Thematic Coordinator Simon Broek shares his thoughts on the important role of volunteers in adult learning but also urges not to forget that volunteers should not be used to replace adult educators.
Adult learning is often seen as panacea for solving many social issues, as is education in general. Social inclusion, language learning, digital skills, financial literacy, and tolerance are all aspects which adult learning is contributing to. Often, however, these social issues are prioritised without respectively increasing the budgets devoted to adult learning – a problem most adult learning systems in Europe are confronted with.
Reasons to make use of volunteers in adult learning
A way for adult learning to continue to contribute towards solving some of these social problems (within its financial boundaries) is to make use of volunteers. Volunteers devote their time to help those in need and try to educate them in aspects which are found important. In addition, they often provide support in light-touch life/work guidance. For instance, volunteers help migrants with writing official letters, finding additional support services, helping newcomers understand how the host society works, etc.
Volunteers are not ‘employed’ only for financial reasons. There is also a humanistic interest from volunteers in supporting vulnerable groups and this interest should be especially cherished in individualistic societies. Furthermore, volunteering is skills development in its own right: those who volunteer also acquire specific social, didactical and life skills and experiences.
Professionals vs volunteers?
There is however a problem with working with volunteers in adult education. This is best explained when compared to initial (primary or secondary) education.
Would you want a non-professional to teach and educate your children? If schools were to work with volunteers to educate children, this would surely lead to heated debates and political questions. Why is this different for the education of adults, then? Why do we allow non-professionals to educate vulnerable groups, often having a migration background or negative learning experiences? Don’t we need professionals to do this?
A future of learning from non-professionals
I support the idea that adult learning is not always something organised and I even dream of a world where learning is an integral part of everyday life and work, flowing naturally from the activities someone engages in and wants to engage in. In this case, learning is more self-directed and learners can find ad-hoc ‘teachers’ and ‘instructors’ themselves (for instance, you ask your neighbour how to do the garden as apparently he is knowledgeable about this). In this scenario, the teachers can be ‘amateurs’ (non-professionals who are passionate about a specific subject).
We should however not mix up these two perspectives: for a large group of (more vulnerable) adult learners, learning is organised and trusting this to volunteers means not giving the learners the support they need and deserve.
In addition, using volunteers in adult learning, creates the impression that adult education is indeed a volunteering activity which undermines the standing of adult education professionals. How can you explain that professionals and volunteers are doing the same thing without reducing the professional status of the educators?
Value volunteering, but do not mix professional and non-professional roles
Volunteering is good. It builds stronger and more resilient societies. However, volunteering cannot replace professional roles when it comes to educational provision. If adult education is a social service just like other forms of education or health care, the responsibility should be with someone who is well equipped in doing this. It should not be left to non-professionals.
Throughout Europe models can be found of how volunteers work with other professionals, but we still need to think how adult educators can work with volunteers to achieve the best results.
Do you agree with the points made in this article? Share your thoughts in the comments below.
Simon Broek has been involved in several European research projects on education, labour market issues and insurance business. He advised the European Commission, the European Parliament and European Agencies on issues related to education policies, lifelong learning, and labour market issues, and is Managing Partner at Ockham Institute of Policy Support.