Lifelong learning minister Malcolm Wicks will hear evidence that government policies are failing to remove barriers to learning among 16-year-olds.
Academics will use a conference next month to outline research that shows that Curriculum 2000 has not addressed many young people's sense of failure after GCSE exams.
Ann Hodgson of London University's Institute of Education will tell the conference: "GCSE is a do-or-die exercise, and those students - almost 50 per cent - who do not gain the requisite five passes are unlikely to progress." She will add: "While Curriculum 2000 does look set to broaden the curriculum, it is still a barrier to lifelong learning because too many youngsters will continue to flounder at 16."
Her comments will be echoed by John Bynner, also of the Institute of Education, whose research suggests that lifelong learning tends to be monopolised by students who have already done well.
"Unless lifelong learning policies target under-represented groups, we will see an even wider gap and the lower achievers will simply be left behind," he will say. "Unless people can get on to the first rung of the ladder, you will never have a comprehensive lifelong learning strategy."
Frank Coffield, director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Learning Society programme, will go even further. "It is no good having a lifelong learning strategy that starts at age 16... people who work in nursery education need to be talking to those in adult education.
"At the moment this does not happen in government and it does not happen in education institutions, so it certainly doesn't happen in the real world. We need some radical rethinking of the structures that are currently in place."
Professor Coffield will tell the conference that there has been too much rhetoric about lifelong learning. "The romantic notion that lifelong learning is some kind of magic bullet just doesn't hold true."
Researchers have found, he will say, that lifelong learning is a more difficult concept to implement than government thought. Cultural barriers have resulted in up to one-third of adults turning their backs on learning. This is particularly true among men, for whom going back to college is viewed as a step backwards. Women see it as a step up.
"Unless we engage with these really difficult problems, then merely focusing on trying to widen participation in lifelong learning will be a waste of time," Professor Coffield will say.
Instead of concentrating on post-16 education, progression ought to begin at the earliest possible stage by demolishing the structures that separate stages of learning, he will add.
- The conference, "Research and Policy on Lifelong Learning", organised by the ESRC's Learning Society programme, will be held at the New Connaught Rooms, London WC2 on November 6.