Finding the glue that can fix cracks in our society

June 22, 2001

In a world fragmented by globalisation, learning is key to social cohesion, say Andy Green and John Preston

Rising material prosperity and a record of sound economic management may have ensured new Labour a historic second term majority. But government triumphalism and electorate optimism have been muted. Low voter turnout, riots in Oldham and a conservative Britain divided over Europe remind us of the fragility of social cohesion in a world increasingly fragmented by globalisation and consumerism.

This is not a peculiarly British problem, although we may tilt towards the United States rather than continental Europe in its extent. Income inequality and violent crime have risen generally, albeit with substantially different national levels and rates, and fewer people vote and express confidence in institutions.

Robert Putnam argues that there has also been a steady drop in associational membership and civic participation in the US since the 1960s although, according to Peter Hall, this pattern has not been repeated in the UK. Boosting social cohesion has not been a priority in recent education policy, despite its historic importance in the early development of national education systems.

Since the 1960s, human capital theory has dominated in policy circles, and the stress on the importance of skills has increased with mounting global economic competition. But there are signs that policy-making is taking more heed of the social impact of learning. Social cohesion is a central theme in the European Commission memorandum on lifelong learning. In Britain, citizenship education is now compulsory in the national curriculum for secondary schools in England and Wales, bringing us in line with the rest of Europe.

Last year, the then Department for Education and Employment instigated, as the first of its directly funded research centres, our Research Centre on the Wider Benefits of Learning, based at the Institute of Education and Birkbeck College. Such developments in community learning suggest a new responsiveness to the concerns about social fragmentation and to the evidence supporting the substantial effects of learning on social outcomes.

Quantitative studies in the UK and the US have demonstrated links between learning and various indicators of social capital. People with more education are more likely to join associations, volunteer, donate and demonstrate higher levels of political engagement and civic participation. They also more frequently report having trust in social institutions and in other people.

These associations vary over time but have been strongly positive at least since the 1960s, when many of the data were first systematically collected. They are weakened but often remain significant even after controlling for other factors such as income and gender. The quantitative studies show correlations but have provided less conclusive evidence about causality. Our fieldwork based on interviews with post-16 and adult learners in a range of institutional and community contexts, is beginning to shed light on some of the mechanisms.

Respondents frequently refer to the effects of their current and previous learning on social aspects of their lives and provide accounts of how different forms of learning have increased social competences, widened networks, enhanced self-esteem and helped shape identities. Analysis of longitudinal data will help explain the sequencing of patterns of learning and changes in social and identity capital throughout the lifecourse. But many of the things that affect social cohesion at the societal level do not show in analyses of individual variation in attitudes and behaviours, where society-wide institutional and cultural characteristics appear as constants. Income inequality, for instance, cannot be understood as an individual-level variable. Policy may focus on learning effects on individuals, but these effects are likely to be context dependent. Social outcomes vary across countries and over time - although this is not always acknowledged in individual-level analyses - and it seems likely that the strength of social learning effects will do also.

To take an example, one has only to think of the rise of Nazism in Weimar Germany, among the most educated of societies at the time, to question the universality of the association between education and tolerance.

Social capital theory has usually taken the individual and the community as the appropriate levels of analysis. A fuller understanding of the influence of learning on social cohesion must focus on individual lifecourse and societal effects, using longitudinal and cross-national analysis. In a world where many traditional institutions have a diminishing social impact, education remains a vital resource for solidarity.

Andy Green and John Preston work at the Research Centre on the Wider Benefits of Learning at the Institute of Education. The centre's inaugural conference on the social benefits of learning will be held there on July 3-4. Details from Janet O'Hehir:

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