Learners are born, says report

January 16, 1998

MUCH of the government's lifelong learning policy is based on "fallacy", according to new findings for the Economic and Social Research Council, writes Phil Baty.

A person's lifetime participation in education is largely determined at birth, a research team from the school of education at the University of Wales, Cardiff, has found. The team says that intervention to promote lifelong learning in later life is often fruitless - social background is more important.

Stephen Gorard, who heads the team, said that he could predict, with "depressing accuracy", any individual's participation in learning, with just basic birth data.

"Once someone has been set on a certain path at birth," he said, "very little can change it." Dr Gorard believes his findings have several implications for government policy.

Increased participation in post-compulsory formal learning in further and higher education will have little impact on an individual's attitude to lifelong learning, he said.

"Over the past 50 years, growing numbers of students have been continuing to participate after 16, and a substantial proportion would now expect to continue to higher edcuation," he said. "Unfortunately, this experience of extended education is not sufficient to encourage later participation in adult learning. The social background is the key."

Initiatives to break down the barriers that block access to adult learning opportunities, such as a lack of child care, and financial constraints, may be also misguided, he said.

"The fact that an individual's social and family background at birth has such an impact on their later life suggests that policy-makers should concentrate on reducing inequalities in society," he said, "rather than simply trying to increase the opportunities for everyone to learn."

The research team interviewed face-to-face over 1,000 people from South Wales from three generations, chosen from the electoral register.

With the data collected, using "multinomical logistic regression", they developed a mathematical formula which they claim can predict a person's educational future with 90 per cent accuracy.

"Our work is part of the ESRC's Learning Society project," said Dr Gorard. "Too much policy focuses on the learning. We want to pull the focus back on society. You can't create a learning society just by providing learning opportunities."

Dr Gorard said: "Labour's lifelong learning ideas do not appear to have been very well researched."

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