Life learners prepare for radical shifts

October 17, 1997

The central principle of a lifelong learning curriculum, based on knowledge and citizenship, should be a social theory of learning that runs through our lives like the message in a stick of rock.

We need to move beyond an individual to an interpersonal view of learning which appreciates the impact of culture, resources and opportunities.

Lifelong learning challenges us to think and act cross-sectorally, but no one owes loyalty to this concept. Separate reports are produced on further (Kennedy) and on higher (Dearing) education. But the United Kingdom needs a tertiary system in which students move from further to higher education and vice versa for vocational training. The white paper on lifelong learning should seize the historic opportunity, missed by Dearing, to recommend the replacement of the divisive binary line between further and higher education with a tertiary system that celebrates diversity.

The leadership role is given to the state to coordinate policies on education with those on industry rather than leaving employers to determine the nation's short-term training needs. Instead of the failed policies of voluntarism and levies, tax incentives should be offered to firms to provide training, and to upgrade their production strategies and the quality of their goods and services.

This "high skill" route to economic prosperity and social justice will require extra government funds, even if employers and individuals pay more. We shall not develop a lifelong learning culture where none exists by passing the financial burden to small and medium-sized enterprises. To prevent misunderstanding, the aim would be to coordinate education and industrial policies, not to subordinate the former to the latter.

The strategy's principles are:

* inclusion - the remit of lifelong learning is not post-16 but post partum, ie everyone from 0 to 90 years

* equity - a prosperous, just and cohesive democracy requires all its citizens to be educated and trained throughout their lives and not a separately educated elite, trained to lead a growing but expendable army of casual, temporary and part-time workers

* a broad definition of learning and of the institutions providing lifelong learning

* continuous chances for all. But this will be insufficient if the institutions remain unreformed.

Educational institutions should be financially induced to become community resources or face the prospect of funding being moved from them via individual learning accounts which may destabilise them without enfranchising the disaffected. Bank accounts belong to middle-class culture and are little used on deprived housing estates, where debt is feared.

Ministers are demanding a lot of individuals and institutions, but substantial improvement may not be possible without structural change. First, policies which militate against lifelong learning should be rescinded (eg the 16-hour rule). A unified qualifications system should replace the separate tracks of A level, GNVQ and NVQ, which reinforce class divisions. A high-quality, work-based learning route for 16-year-old school-leavers remains to be established. Work-based learning, employee development schemes need to be built into nationally-supported means of deepening the skills of all.

The Australian experience of student loans is that once the principle of free higher education is broken, even the least harmful scheme, of the kind Labour proposes, will adversely affect participation, particularly when later versions of the scheme become more regressive.

A learning society worthy of the name would learn from its mistakes, such as the many millions wasted on early versions of the national curriculum, when politicians, policy-makers and professionals were operating without an explicit model of change. This time a sophisticated notion of the dynamics of change and a better research base are needed.

The strategy must aim not just at improving the performance of the education and training system, but a radical conception of lifelong learning must do battle with our class-ridden and anti-intellectual culture over sharpening, deep-seated and unjustifiable inequalities and widespread lack of respect for education and teachers.

Twenty years ago "recurrent education" was the talk of education and business conferences but was shelved by the powerful. The government's white paper can prevent the same fate for lifelong learning. If Tony Blair is to preside over "one of the great radical reforming governments of our history", structural reform must move centre stage. Individuals and institutions cannot deliver radical reform without power, resources and appropriate structures.

Frank Coffield, professor of education at Newcastle University and director of the ESRC The Learning Society Programme, is writing in a personal capacity. The report is available from him (Pounds 20 cheque payable to Newcastle University).

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