Non-formal learning is an extensively used and intensely debated notion in the youth field. It stands for a range of core learning principles, methodologies and approaches in the youth sector, commonly emphasising the learner's intrinsic motivation, voluntary participation, critical thinking and democratic agency. It is widely acknowledged and recognised that non-formal learning provides unique learning opportunities to millions of young Europeans on a daily basis.

The glossary of the European Knowledge Centre for Youth Policy describes non-formal learning as follows:

"Non-formal learning is purposive but voluntary learning that takes place in a diverse range of environments and situations for which teaching/training and learning is not necessarily their sole or main activity. These environments and situations may be intermittent or transitory, and the activities or courses that take place may be staffed by professional learning facilitators (such as youth trainers) or by volunteers (such as youth leaders). The activities and courses are planned, but are seldom structured by conventional rhythms or curriculum subjects. They usually address specific target groups, but rarely document or assess learning outcomes or achievements in conventionally visible ways." [here]

In recent years, academic inquiry has gradually shifted to a repositioning of non-formal learning—defined in 1974 by Coombs and Ahmed as "any organized, systematic educational activity, carried on outside the framework of the formal system"—as one of multiple learning situations positioned on a learning continuum and structured across multiple dimensions between formality, nonformality and informality of learning (Chisholm 2007, Colley et al. 2003).

Political interest in the variety of learner-centred and practice-based educational processes that are subsumed under non-formal learning has increasingly been focused on quality standards, validation and strategies for recognition.

In 1998, the European Ministers responsible for Youth confirmed, in the final declaration of their 5th conference, non-formal education as a priority working area in the Council of Europe's youth field. Considering non-formal education as a means of integration into society, the ministers called for recognition and valorisation of the competences and qualifications acquired through non-formal education.

Throughout the years, non-formal learning and education were repeatedly confirmed as key priorities of the Council of Europe; in 2005, the European Ministers responsible for youth expressed once more that the recognition of non-formal education competencies should be reinforced. In its Agenda 2020, the Conference of Ministers highlights that the recognition of non-formal education and learning makes a strong contribution to young people's access to education, training and working life.

Complementary to the Council of Europe's policy development and educational work on non-formal education, the European Union has undertaken its own efforts to strengthen the recognition of non-formal learning, guided by the European Commission's White Paper "A New Impetus for Youth" and contextualised by the "Memorandum on Lifelong Learning".

The European Youth Pact reaffirmed the focus on the recognition of non-formal learning, which has again been confirmed and underlined in the renewed framework for European cooperation in the youth field (2010-2018):

"As a complement to formal education, non-formal learning for young people should be promoted and recognised, and better links between formal education and non-formal learning developed."

Both European institutions have given non-formal education and learning an increasingly high status and considerable momentum with high-level resolutions: the Council of Europe with Resolution (2003) 8 of the Committee of Ministers on the promotion and recognition of non-formal education/learning of young people ; the European Union with Resolution 2006 / C168 on the recognition of the value of non-formal and informal learning within the European youth field.

Embedded in this policy framework, two key instruments were developed to facilitate the validation and recognition of skills and competencies acquired through non-formal learning. The European Union launched Youthpass, and the Council of Europe introduced the European Portfolio for youth leaders and youth workers. Both tools are meant to support users in identifying, describing and assessing competencies and as such intend to contribute to the recognition of non-formal education and learning.

In 2004, the two institutions joined forces and published, under the auspices of the partnership on youth between the European Commission and the Council of Europe, the milestone working paper "Pathways towards validation and recognition of education, training & learning in the youth field". The paper provides a comprehensive overview of the political context and relevant policy frameworks surrounding non-formal education, describes essential features and characteristics of non-formal learning in the youth field and sets out pathways towards validation and formal recognition. Having remained a key text over the years, the working paper has recently been updated to a new version titled "Pathways 2.0" which is replacing the original working paper. It attempts to re-define a new strategy for the better formal, social and political recognition of non-formal and informal learning and to stimulate ideas for and discussion about concrete steps, strategies and tools to strengthen recognition.

The European Youth Forum, representing youth organisations as spaces of non-formal learning and providers of non-formal education, has made significant contributions to the European policy discourse. Considering the recognition of non-formal education and learning a prerequisite for making lifelong learning a reality across Europe, the European Youth Forum has adopted several policy papers, developed numerous reports on the issue and organises regular dialogue events on non-formal education.

Beyond the youth sector and strongly linked with the lifelong learning strategy of the European Union, the validation and recognition of non-formal learning plays a  significant and strategic role in the work of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development – OECD and the European Centre for the Development of Vocational Training – CEDEFOP. Both organisations have published extensively on non-formal education and learning, most recently "Recognising Non-Formal and Informal Learning: Outcomes, Policies and Practices" (OECD, 2010) and the "European guidelines for validating non-formal and informal learning" (CEDEFOP, 2009).

Additionally, CEDEFOP has — through the European inventory on validating non-formal and informal learning — provided a series of valuable insights into national policies and practices in validating non-formal and informal learning.

In the years to come, the youth field is likely to be confronted with increased demands to synchronise its currently existing sector-specific policies and approaches to the recognition of non-formal and informal learning with wider contexts and instruments such as the European Qualification Framework (EQF), the European Credit System for Vocational Education and Training (ECVET) or the European Skills Competencies Occupations Taxonomy (ESCO).