New skills for new generation in Azerbaijan

A national network of Youth Houses aim to offer Basic Life Skills courses for young people, to better equip them for adulthood in a fast-changing world.

UNICEF
Youth attending a presentation.
UNICEF Azerbaijan

18 September 2018

In a rapidly changing world, today’s generation of young people expect an education system that can support learning and development for the modern age. The Government of Azerbaijan has recognised the need to cater for a more contemporary set of skills and has initiated a programme to revitalise the national network of Youth Houses it initiated ten years ago.

Youth Houses are currently not the first place for young people to seek new skills – so the aim is to reverse the trend by modernising the existing system. Youth House is a fixed location in each district that should, in practice offer some psychological, legal and information support services to young people, in addition to providing space for their leisure time.

The Basic Life Skills course has been developed based on an analysis of the challenges young people face in the country. Currently, under a pilot programme, the 16-week course is being taught at two Youth Houses and is receiving a positive response from participants. “This training course has taught me the importance of finding a job I will really enjoy doing and to enjoy every moment of my life,” said Gulchin Mahmudlu, one of 12 students who took the course as part of its piloting.

In 2016, 12 out of 39 Youth Houses were put under the supervision of the Ministry of Youth and Sport. To help gauge what types of services would best serve young people, UNICEF supported an extensive survey across six districts involving 2,697 young people, the findings of which underscored how services provided by the Youth Houses needed to be updated if they were to engage the youth of today.

Aida Ailarova, Youth and Adolescent Development Specialist at UNICEF Azerbaijan, explains how developing meaningful services required collaborative thinking. “This is a joint initiative between the Government and the United Nations that aims to revitalise the Youth House programme through the delivery of an integrated package of services in the heart of the community – we realised that if we were to meet the expectations of young people, different agencies had to come together and provide a more seamless package of support, in one place, that maximized the expertise of different organizations.”

A group of students in a classrom.
UNICEF Azerbaijan
A group of students in a classrom.

Under the overall leadership of the Ministry of Youth & Sport, coordination of inputs to the new Youth House programme has been driven by UNICEF which has engaged the interest and commitment of six other UN agencies to supporting the redevelopment.  Focus areas for the agencies’ inputs include personal development, employability, adolescent health and legal and psychological counselling. “The initiative is based on a 5-pillar adolescent development approach, covering Health and Wellbeing, Education and Learning, Protection, Youth Participation and Engagement, and Employment,” Ailarova explains.

At the heart of the new package is the Basic Life Skills course, under the Education and Learning pillar. The course is being trialled in two Youth Houses, one in the capital Baku’s suburb of Binagadi and the other in the north-western city of Mingachevir. The course covers two age groups: 12 to 16 and 17 to 25 years old. The engagement and response from the students has been very encouraging.

International expert Michelle May helped to develop the course, including its materials and methodology. “My focus was to get as much input as possible from a diverse spectrum of Azerbaijani youth, so it was culturally appropriate in a variety of settings,” says May.  From her extensive travel and research in Azerbaijan she has gained an excellent insight into what should be included in the course. “I asked about the challenges young people face and what skills they thought might help them tackle those challenges. I then pitched a series of topics, content and styles to them, to gauge their response and interest level. Once I understood what the majority were interested in, I created a first draft.”

The course material was later reviewed by a wide range of audiences – some staff for the Ministry of Youth and Sport even said they were interested in taking the course themselves.

Field testing of the Basic Life Skills course began in February at both pilot Youth Houses. Each session is 90 minutes long, and each week covers one of the 16 core skills. These are divided into three main topics - self-awareness, interpersonal skills and thinking skills. “We want to ensure Youth Houses are educating young people in a way which provides them with transferable skills and helps them to navigate to adulthood,” Ailarova explains.

Youth facilitator presenting in a classroom.
UNICEF Azerbaijan
Youth facilitator presenting in a classroom.

Youth facilitators were selected from the Youth Houses for training seminars with UNICEF. As Michelle May explains “We spent significant time with role play activities. During those role plays facilitators received immediate and constructive feedback, to develop their facilitation skills and improve their understanding of the course content.” During the training course the facilitators received course material, scripts and lesson plans to assist with delivering the course in a youth-focused manner.

During the third session entitled ‘Shifting from negative to positive’ held at a Youth House in the 7th Micro Region of Baku, youth facilitator Mahmud Mammadova and his 12 students discussed how to focus on the positive.

“Every time you think about doing something there will be negative points and positive points, but you have to transfer the negative into the positive,” Mammadova explains to his students. He begins a short exercise saying “I will now read some scenarios and you can tell me what you think. ‘You fail your exams! What do you do?’”

Youth in conversation as a group.
UNICEF Azerbaijan
Youth in conversation as a group.

One student replies “You will be criticised by your parents.” The room then erupts into a hum of chatter as the student discuss this dilemma amongst each other. “I would keep trying until I pass,” says another student.

Mammadova nods and says “Failure is an experience, face the failure and then you can let it go.”  A discussion about friendship follows, with one student explaining how he offended a good friend with something he wrote in a message. The next day he addressed the matter by arranging to meet this friend and he resolved the issue face to face. Mammadova sums up the session by saying “There is always something to be learned. Every experience can be seen as a life lesson.”

The students were overwhelmingly positive about the course, stating it had exceeded expectations. “I expected it to be very theoretical, but it’s much more practical. The practical nature has allowed us to learn more and also demonstrated how we can apply what we learn to real life.” says Asmet Ibrahimzade.

As the trial period for the Basic Life Skills course comes to an end and the final recommendations are made, Michelle May reflects on what she observed during her final visit.

Two youth facilitators in conversation.
UNICEF Azerbaijan
Two youth facilitators in conversation.

“I see these young people excited to have the opportunity to learn about topics that are traditionally not covered in formal academic settings. Many said that it was the first time they had been asked their opinion on non-academic topics.”

Based on May’s observations, the course has given the students an opportunity to discuss and debate a variety of issues that some would deem difficult to talk about in their daily lives.

The remaining ten Youth Houses will begin teaching the Basic Life Skills course in 2019 and UNICEF has already been contacted by other organisations interested in using it, including the Association of Football Federations of Azerbaijan which wants to teach the Basic Life Skills syllabus at the Football Academy to help build confidence in its female youth team.