Learning gives a society life

August 20, 1999

Adult education helps fight social exclusion, but solid research must underline the point, says Ian Nash.

There are close parallels across all north Atlantic countries in macro economic approaches to welfare-to-work programmes to tackle social exclusion. Emphasis is strongly on employability, using carrot-and-stick approaches: no work; no benefits.

On the ground, however, the picture is very different. The United Kingdom's New Deal for youth is working in a way remote from that envisaged by the education and employment secretary. Individuals are gaining self- esteem, confidence and self-sufficiency - but not necessarily jobs.

In Norway, ministries are rewriting rigid regulations to give communities more control over adult learning programmes to meet the needs of individuals.

Education and training, not work, has become the prime goal in many regions. In the Netherlands, deep prejudices against women and minorities had halted many welfare-to-work schemes. Only when new support networks, social clubs and mentoring and advice schemes were created did they become sustainable.

Notions of social inclusion and exclusion are, in many ways, just the latest fashion. No one really knows if they will lead to anything better than the makework job creation schemes of the 1980s.

There is a desperate need to take stock, to look at just how transferable schemes are between nations and communities. How far can we rely on employability measures, and to what extent should this be backed up with investment in social capital, the health and welfare schemes, adult learning and mutual support schemes that appear to sustain people in hard economic times?

The paucity of good research into adult learning's role in combating social exclusion is emerging as a big hindrance to the spread of good initiatives. The need for quality studies is spelt out in our report from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development, Overcoming Exclusion through Adult Learning.

While there is now widespread attention to the promotion of lifelong learning as a political policy, the research base is surprisingly ill-developed. This is a worldwide deficiency. This study - which focused on six countries: Belgium, Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, Portugal and the UK - illustrates the urgency with which research is needed. The many different factors that go towards making adult learning effective in meeting the needs of those in danger of exclusion deserve to be much more thoroughly analysed.

If the research is done, politicians may have to eat considerable humble pie as the results emerge. For this study, academics and journalists analysed 19 social inclusion schemes, from the community banks and self-sufficiency programmes of Mexico to the creation of jobs to care for the elderly in Belgium and compulsory job schemes for the unemployed in the Netherlands. Each project was underpinned by adult learning initiatives.

Although the study could draw no strict conclusions, patterns did emerge. It also gave strong indications of areas where research must be better developed.

Three areas in particular are the relationships between health, welfare and employability; the balance of investment needed in human capital and social capital; and the degree to which employability measures should dictate the shape of social inclusion programmes.

There is also virtually no reliable evidence on the best balance between national policies and local/community-based practices.

One scheme to eliminate poverty and raise self-esteem in rural Nuevo San Juan, Mexico, involved allowing an impoverished community to own collectively and run a forestry project on land destroyed early this century by volcanic eruptions.

Adult basic skills and health education projects were created in a programme of small but sustained government investments. At the beginning, employability had to be the last consideration.

There are still problems such as the continued decline of the indigenous language and local arts and crafts. But illiteracy under 50 is virtually eliminated, and workers' pay at every level is twice the national average.

Health, measured by such factors as infant mortality, has improved.

Two problems emerge from such data: first, does what works in Mexico work in Britain? Second, such "facts" circulate the globe as anecdote, leaving politicians free to counter them with little more than sophistry.

Politicians who denigrated academic research praised the industrial notions of human capital, encouraging a culture of human resource departments and training or job targets that are often little better than those set the US Acme door-to-door brush salesmen of the 1930s. There are considerable pockets of research, such as from Sweden, to suggest that those who learn longer live longer. In Norway, there is evidence linking education for health improvements to more productive employability. In Portugal and the UK, education for self employment and self-sufficiency appears to be combating social exclusion.

Recent data from the OECD reveals how the countries richest in human resources are poorest in social resources: there are considerably more young people in single-parent families with no bread-winning role model in wealthy Britain and Belgium than there are in impoverished Mexico. But it is the social capital that gets people through recessions. There is research potential in studying the relationships between learning and exclusion every bit as rich as that relating to pre-school and school-age young people.

Ian Nash is further education editor of The TES. He and John Walshe, education editor of the Irish Independent, wrote Overcoming Exclusion through Adult Learning. Details from OECD Publications, 2, Rue Andre-Pascal, 75775 Paris Cedex 16, France.

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