November 03 marked a particularly important date in the Léargas diary. Not only was it the day of the annual Léargas Forum, but it was also the first time our annual event took place in a virtual space!
And while we couldn't join together in person as in previous years, our celebration of Erasmus+ and our enthusiasm for the new European programme cycle was in no way dampened. Over 200 people joined us for the Forum, and you can see their reactions on our social wall.
With over €75 million having been invested since 2014 in European exchange programmes for schools, youth groups, vocational and community organisations in Ireland through Erasmus+, there was much to celebrate. Today we took the opportunity to reflect on the social and cultural impact of international exchange. That impact was embodied by our MCs for the day, JJ Clarke and Tirna Slevin. Students at Ballyfermot College of Further Education, JJ and Tirna had honed their broadcasting skills on an Erasmus+ VET work placement in a radio station in Finland earlier this year.
Celebrating the Past
Since 2014, over 65,000 people have been funded and supported through Léargas to take part in Erasmus+, by training, working or volunteering abroad, or by working on projects with their peers. Erasmus+ and other European programmes have facilitated sharing good practice and developing innovative approaches to shared challenges such as digital literacy, mental health and climate change.
As such, it's certainly fair to say that the cycle has gone from strength to strength, with beneficiaries seeing significant surges in participant numbers and skill acquisition - something Gillian Byrne, Head of Beauty Therapy at Blackrock Further Education Institute in Dublin, shared as we brought this cycle to a close.
“We started the Vocational Education and Training Mobility Programme through Léargas with 12 students going on international placements. Our current two-year project involves 60 students, and some of our staff."
"As well as beauty students, our Make Up and Design students have taken part in the carnival celebrations in Tenerife and IT students have taken up placements in Holland – they learned new skills and made lifelong friendships, but more than that, it gave students from Blackrock new horizons to aim for when they’d finished their studies.”
New horizons were certainly at the core of the panel discussion, which was ably facilitated - from Brussels! - by Euronews journalist Méabh McMahon. Panel participant Mairead Maher related how she had travelled from Co. Tipperary to Kokkola in Finland and worked with a number of youth organisations in the area - a decision which ultimately helped to shape her future.
Now working as a youth development worker, supporting young people who experience marginalisation and disadvantage, Mairead credits her introduction to EU programmes for the fulfilment she gets from her career and, indeed, her life today.
In a moving contribution during the panel discussion, Mairead told the Forum: "I didn't think these things were possible... I didn't know these things existed... It was completely life-changing... It transformed me as a person."
The personal and professional development seen in Mairead's story is also evident in that of Amy Collins' experience with the European Solidarity Corps. Speaking before the panel, Amy reflected on her time volunteering in Moldova: "It’s almost egotistical in hindsight. I’d gone to Moldova as a very young woman imagining that I was doing this great thing, volunteering to help these people – I had such a sense of 'us' and 'them'. It didn’t take long to get over that. They taught me as much as I taught them, everyone I met shifted my perspective and taught me something new. There is no ‘us’ and ‘them’.”
Senator Rebecca Moynihan made a valuable contribution by video, including her own impressions of the gain in confidence she saw among young participants in her previously role as a Further Education teacher.
Project coordinator Eoin Nash, Manager of Arts and Creative Therapies at COPE Foundation, shared the impact of Erasmus+ projects on the COPE Foundation participants and on the Adult Education sector in general. He also emphasised the need to maintain awareness of inclusion, and of making European opportunities open to all in society: "A lot of people have put a lot of work into ensuring these programmes are more inclusive and diverse. It's essential that those of us involved in it maintain that position and it's kept at the forefront of priority going forward."
Finally, Jean-Marie Cullen from the National Youth Council of Ireland reflected on the connection between youth policy and European programmes. Digital readiness will be another priority area of the new programme, and Jean-Marie highlighted its importance: "Just because young people are digital natives, we assume that's the same as having digital literacy and it's not. Young people need the support to develop skills in this area." Jean-Marie closed with the thought that "I'm really lucky through my job and working closely with Léargas to hear these inspirational stories around the inclusion of young people. It's great to have an opportunity to celebrate the work done through Erasmus+."
Looking to the Future
With a lively and thought-provoking panel discussion among beneficiaries, and words of reflection and encouragement from European Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli and the Minister of State for Skills and Further Education, Niall Collins TD, the Forum was as much about looking forward to the next seven years as it was about looking back on the last seven!
“Taking part in a European project is all about reaching out to others, and the importance of that impulse has never been clearer than it is now," said Minister Collins.
"The European Union is a union of solidarity, and that solidarity does not come from being in other places – it comes from connecting with other people. As participants and supporters of European projects, I urge you to maintain those connections in these difficult times.”
Indeed, with attendees and participants joining the Forum virtually for the first time, the impact of the global pandemic was clear to see - something which Léargas Executive Director Lorraine Gilligan discussed during her key address.
Acknowledging the challenges faced by European programmes in current times, Lorraine highlighted the need for digital readiness in light of the ongoing challenges of COVID-19 travel restrictions, saying: “We don’t believe virtual activities will ever be a substitute for the experience of meeting and working with people in other countries, but we know that they are a way to complement and maintain existing relationships."
EU Commissioner for Equality Helena Dalli remarked that the future programmes will "improve outreach to people with fewer opportunities, especially to those coming from disadvantaged or minority backgrounds, and those with special needs. We will not be successful without the support of agencies like Léargas. I thank you for what you have done so far, and I know I can count on you for the achievement of our future ambitious goals.”
Léargas: A New Revolution
Indeed, Léargas has been involved in European Commission working groups to develop the new programme, which like Erasmus+ will provide opportunities for learners and educators from across the youth and education sectors in Ireland.
“Next year we will launch the 2021-2027 programme which will explore the possibilities of blended mobilities and new opportunities for participation and partnership," Lorraine continued. "Our goal is to make programmes such as Erasmus+ and the European Solidarity Corps accessible to everyone, regardless of their background or wherever they imagine their future might take them."
With tens of thousands of young people and educators having experienced new cultures, established new approaches and enjoyed new relationships over the last seven years, we're confident even more will reap the same benefits of European programmes over the next seven. Here's to a wonderful 2021-2027 cycle!