Blunkett's 'capital' idea is attacked

October 3, 1997

A KEY idea that has shaped the education secretary's thinking is to be denounced as a fallacy in a new national strategy for lifelong learning published next week.

Frank Coffield, professor of education at Newcastle University, says in a hard-hitting report that reliance on the notion of "human capital", the churning out of more and more graduates, is lop-sided and inadequate. He argues that it is pointless supplying more and more highly skilled people if there is no work for them to do.

"This fallacy is not being promoted by a few harmless eccentrics but appears to be part of the thinking of the secretary of state for education and some of his most influential advisers," the report says.

Secretary of state David Blunkett and his ministers have referred a number of times to the centrality of human capital in their policies. But the report says a national strategy for lifelong learning cannot be built on such a shaky foundation. "The continuing attraction of the theory of human capital lies in its comforting ideology which deflects attention away from the structural causes of poverty on to individuals."

Professor Coffield, also director of the ESRC's Pounds 2-million Learning Society programme, is highly critical of the rhetoric surrounding lifelong learning, which he dismisses as "worthy, safe and middle class".

The report claims the UK is not a learning society and neither does it have a culture of lifelong learning nor even a training culture.

Repeated research findings have emphasised that those who benefit most from initial education continue to get most out of what is offered later. A learning and training underclass is created that is deeply inimical to the creation of a learning society and sustains the middle-class dominance of the best university places.

"I am very worried the new government will, for different reasons, make the same mistakes as the last," Professor Coffield said.

National Strategy for Lifelong Learning, Pounds 20, from Frank Coffield, Newcastle University (0191-222 6397).

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