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Adult Education as a path to social inclusion: towards active citizenship through economic, social and civic participation

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By Natasha Kersh, UCL Institute of Education, UK

Context: social inclusion, engagement and young adults

Social exclusion, disengagement and disaffection of young adults have been among the most significant concerns faced by EU member states over the last decade.  There is a growing number of young people suffering from the various effects of the unstable social, economic and political situations affecting Europe and its neighbouring countries (Kersh and Toiviainen, 2017). Some young adults are particularly at risk of being excluded and marginalised, for example those with health or learning difficulties, early school leavers, members of ethnic minority groups, homeless young people, or young refugees and migrants. Adult Education (AE) systems in Europe and beyond have responded by setting up programmes and strategies with the aim of integrating refugees and migrants into domestic labour markets as well facilitating their social and civic participation. The recent debate on AE, social inclusion and citizenship has been underpinned strongly by the discussion on how active citizenship could be exercised in a way that would promote social justice, inclusion and participation (Jarvis, 2012; Evans 2009). Different forms of AE have been recognised increasingly as a means to engage young adults, improve their life chances and facilitate their social inclusion, thus contributing to their capacity to take an active role as citizens within their societal contexts. However, the European AE systems often fail to meet the specific educational needs of many vulnerable groups, such as people with low levels of basic or functional literacy (e.g. ethnic minority members, foreign newcomers), as well as those who have dropped out of school or are not in education or training (NEETs). The Horizon 2020 project ‘Adult Education as a Means to Active Participatory Citizenship’ (EduMAP), conducted in 2016–2019, aimed to address these complex issues and advance understanding and further develop both the current and future impact of AE on learning for active participatory citizenship (APC) in Europe and beyond.

EduMAP: Researching adult education policies and practices



The project ‘Adult Education as a means to Active Participatory Citizenship’ (EduMAP) is a Horizon 2020 research initiative (2016–2019) focusing on AE and young adults at risk of social exclusion. Particular attention is paid to the educational policies and practices needed to foster APC among young people facing different types of vulnerabilities. The research question that the project seeks to answer is: What policies and practices are needed in the field of adult education to include young adults at risk of social exclusion in active participatory citizenship in Europe? Therefore, in the development and conceptualisation of the notion of APC, the project specifically takes into account the requirements of this target group.

EduMAP is a multinational research consortium, which involved the partnership and cooperation of six European countries and one non-EU partner, and has surveyed both European and national AE priorities, policy developments and educational practices in the EU28 and Turkey.   The EduMAP’s methodological approach was based on undertaking both desk and empirical research, carried out through dedicated work packages. Our Europe-wide desk review (Kersh and Toiviainen, 2017) provided a basis for the empirical research, which aimed to identify and review educational programmes and services that have proven to be successful in including young people aged 16–30 at risk of social exclusion in active political, social and/or economic participation.  The concept of active citizenship is used across European countries with different emphases, and to a certain extent, the way the term is used reflects the policy priorities of the countries in question. The EduMAP empirical study involved researching 40 Adult Education programmes across 19 EU countries and one non-EU country. Fieldwork involved individual and focus group interviews with some 800 participants, including educational practitioners, policy-makers and young adults.   Through empirical research, EduMAP identified and explored elements of good practice in terms of engaging vulnerable groups, and further investigated the role of information and communication processes in shaping aspects of inclusion, engagement and active citizenship for young people at risk of social exclusion. 

Active participatory citizenship, vulnerability and inclusion

The findings indicate that the types and characteristics of vulnerability are associated with different disadvantages such as displacement, limited basic skills, disability, socio-economic background, unemployment and NEET status. The current political, economic and social state of affairs across Europe, and beyond, has brought a number of challenges related to inclusion and active societal participation of young people, especially those in a vulnerable position.  Within the project the concept of ‘active participatory citizenship’ (APC) was defined to embrace social, economic and political dimensions of participation. The consideration of socio-cultural, socio-economic and political dimensions of active participatory citizenship (APC) provides the conceptual lens to explore young adults’ participation in different social contexts (Kersh and Toiviainen, 2017). The project considers social, economic and political dimensions of active participatory citizenship, encompassing the development of social competences and social capital, civic and political participation and the skills related to the economy and labour market, including employment and work-related skills, access to social benefits, awareness of rights. In the project, the concept of APC is employed to provide a better understanding of social inclusion and participation of young people, where the

  • social (socio-cultural) dimension focuses on the development of social competences and social capital;
  • economic (socio-economic) dimension relates to employment (e.g. developing employability skills) and access to social benefits; and
  • political (politico-legal) dimension encourages civic and political participation, running for boards, neighbourhood activities.

Such interpretation of active citizenship does not exclude discussions of rights and responsibilities, but is additionally concerned with the ways in which individuals improve their life chances and make decisions about their lives. This notion of engagement brings attention to an important configuration of active  citizenship, which presupposes both active and participatory engagement of individuals (Toiviainen et al, 2019). (EduMAP, 2017).

Conclusions and recommendations

EduMAP recommends that AE policies, programmes and actions pay attention to vulnerable young learners’ needs and set explicit goals for the promotion of social, economic and political aspects of active citizenship. The project  has highlighted several points of consideration. (1) With the exception of programmes for newly arrived migrants and/or refugees, the majority of AE courses do not demonstrate an explicit focus on citizenship education/skills. (2) However, different dimensions of active citizenship, however,  such as economic, social and political dimensions, have characterised (often implicitly) AE programmes and initiatives across all countries considered in this project. While some programmes may specifically focus on citizenship (e.g. programmes for migrants), often ‘citizenship’ is not used explicitly and/or may be embedded. (3) One critical limitation, however, as identified by the project findings, is that current AE policies and the manifestations of active societal participation are often driven by national policy developments and agendas rather than by the needs of vulnerable  groups. (4) Specifically in the most recent decade, developments and policies related to AE and active citizenship have been strongly influenced by both the economic crisis and the influx of migrants across the EU28 and Turkey. These trends have resulted in the prevalence of market-oriented approaches and strategies to integrate refugees and migrants across AE programmes. The findings have indicated that the European AE systems often fail to meet the specific needs of young adults in vulnerable positions.  Through targeted research, the project aimed to identify and explore educational programmes (good practices) that proved to be successful in re-engaging young people, addressing their specific needs and facilitating their APC (rather than just focusing on addressing current policy agendas). The following elements of good practice (drivers for success) have been identified:

  • Relevance and contextualisation: contextualising APC dimensions in ways that are relevant to young adults’ personal backgrounds and/or professional aims and ambitions; gender differences need to be taken into account;
  • Opportunities and affordances: creating opportunities to exercise active citizenship in all its dimensions and related to young adults’ experiences and personal situations;
  • Flexibility and personalisation rather than one fixed ‘approach’ for all: ensuring flexible provision that provides personalised approaches in developing educational programmes;
  • The role of the educational professional: the importance of the mediating role of educational professionals needs to be better recognised and taken into account by relevant stakeholders;
  • Multiculturalism and tolerance: promoting learning in diverse and multicultural groups in a safe environment;
  • Resilience and confidence: fostering resilience, confidence, self-esteem and aspiration of young adults;
  • Communication: promoting communication between different stakeholders;
  • Favourable and supporting policies: which (1) recognise vulnerabilities as complex and multifaceted issues, thus addressing the danger of providing a limiting definition that fails to address all young adults’ needs; (2) avoid policy responses to put ‘blame’ on individuals (e.g. refugees, in countries affected by acts of terrorism); and (3) ensure issues of equality and equal access to resources.

Based on the research findings, the following recommendations have been made for AE policies, programmes and actions:

  • Ensure strong and coherent national and local policies, incorporating AE, that (1) understand social inclusion as a multidimensional and complex process that needs to be supported by strong diversity and anti-discrimination policies; and (2) recognise the complexity of vulnerabilities and consider vulnerability as a situation of risk (e.g. age, disability, lack of basic skills) rather than a label for specific groups at risk of social exclusion;
  • Facilitate cooperation, learning and partnerships between different sectors and levels (European, national, regional);
  • Pay serious attention to the tendencies of intolerance towards vulnerable people in the world (learning to live together);
  • Improve AE accessibility and inclusivity for young people in situations of risk;
  • Facilitate cooperation and communication between all AE stakeholders, including young people, in policy consultation and decision-making.

The role of policies and practices in contributing to strategies to enhance the inclusion, engagement and active citizenship of young adults has been considered within both our desk and empirical research. In considering the interplay between policy and practice the project aimed to shed light on the ways in which policy and practice developments may either undermine or contribute to cultivating APC for young adults, and what might be learnt from these developments. As part of EduMAP’s project aims and ambition, the research findings and recommendations have been utilised to enhance dialogue between educational actors and vulnerable groups. The research findings have been used to generate an Intelligent Decision Support System (IDSS) to give policy-makers and other stakeholders easy access to the information required to address the needs of vulnerable minority groups.

EduMAP (2017). Adult Education as a Means to Active Participatory Citizenship: A Concept Note.

Evans, K. (2009). Learning, Work and Social Responsibility. Dordrecht: Springer.

Jarvis P. (2012). Adult Learning in the Social Context. London: Routledge.

Kersh, N., & Toiviainen, H. (Eds.). (2017). Broad Research on Adult Education in the EU: Research Report. EduMap project. Available at

Toiviainen, H., Kersh, N., & Hyytiä, J. (2019). Understanding vulnerability and encouraging young adults to become active citizens through education: the role of adult education professionals. Journal of Adult and Continuing Education. doi:10.1177/1477971419826116

This project has been funded under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (EduMAP, H2020-YOUNG-2014-2015/H2020-YOUNG-SOCIETY-2015), Grant Agreement number 693388.

Please see for further information about the project


Dr Natasha Kersh is a Lecturer in Education, at the Department of Education, Practice and Society, UCL Institute of Education. Her research interests and publications relate to the study of VET in the UK and international contexts as well as comparative education, lifelong learning, and adult education. 

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EPALE focus: Citizenship Education in Europe

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  • Andrea Metzger képe
    Sehr interessanter und wichtiger Beitrag!