Why lifelong learning is not a policy

January 16, 1998

While welcoming the aims of the government's lifelong learning initiative, Peter Jarvis, Colin Griffin, John Holford, Linda Merricks and Paul Tosey argue that learning has to be distinguished from the provision of learning opportunities

How helpful was the advice of the Fryer committee to the Department for Education and Employment in drawing up its impending white paper on lifelong learning?

The Fryer report suggested an agenda for creating a learning culture for all. It sought to show why it is necessary, provided a vision for the future and recognised some of the problems that need to be overcome in its implementation. Its language was of coherent policy, equity, people before structures, variety and diversity, high levels of government involvement, quality and flexibility, partnerships between providers, a shared responsibility and high standards. It recalled the utopian visions of the learning society, from the 1919 Ministry of Reconstruction report on adult education onwards.

We welcome the fact that the government created the group. But its report starts from the assumption that the learning society has not arrived. Is this the case? For instance, this belief raises questions about the nature of learning.

If we examine the rapid changes that are occurring in society, we see that people have to learn to cope with those changes. Or again, if we look at the wide range of learning materials being marketed by a variety of providers (not all educational), we see that there is already a large market for learning. But, as the report rightly points out, many people may not recognise that they are learning. In both of these respects, it might be argued that the learning society has arrived. What the report argues for is an institutionalised learning system - an educative society without using the word - seeking to help those who are at the wrong side of the "learning divide".

However, the report, despite all of its good intentions, which we support, is confused because it is not able to clarify this amorphous idea of lifelong learning.

Everyone is a learner, no citizen is socially excluded. Everyone wins. Learning is anything and everything; all learning activities will be equally valued and accreditable. This implies that individuals could amass fortunes in their proposed individual learning accounts through learning in the family, community and workplace; apparently this currency will be immune from devaluation. Remaining inequalities of access will be overcome through topping up the accounts of the poorly educated. For the new middle class, this offers a clear conscience at minimal cost.

Distributing vouchers (ILAs are, after all, a euphemism for education vouchers) will not make everyone want to learn, any more than handing out funny money would make us all want to play Monopoly. It might, of course, create a vibrancy in the learning market, as educational entrepreneurs exchange people's ILAs for real profits; but that is a different matter.

On the one hand, the vision of the learning society is market-led. Providers must review their offerings so that they give citizens, armed with their credit balances, what they want. On the other, we are to have national frameworks of standards; employers are to be accountable for their investment in learning; the diversity of learning activity is to be given its "steer" by funding regimes. The "real" learning proposed, however, seems narrow and mundane. Lifelong learners will be equipped with basic skills, core skills and workplace skills, but not with enthusiasm for learning anything - least of all, a particular subject.

Then there are important omissions. Emphasis on individual's controlling their own learning processes - not everybody, however, might be a self-directed learner - means the role of the teacher is almost entirely ignored. Despite the assertion that lifelong learning begins at school, little mention is made of school teachers or their training and little about how they might be involved in lifelong learning. Teachers of adults are no longer inspirational professionals but merely facilitators and creators of learning materials. To achieve even this, some kind of training would be required for full-time and part-time staff but the mechanisms for this have not been thoroughly addressed.

The report, quite correctly, addresses some issues of implementation and identifies an absence of other appropriate measures. Only in a few areas are the mechanisms relatively well specified. Workplace learning, for instance, would be supported by a code of practice, workplace learning policy statements, workplace learning committees, and so forth. These follow a model adopted over the past 25 years for improving health and safety and equal opportunities at work. Backed up by statutory duties, which are only hinted at in this report, this has succeeded in changing attitudes and cultures only to some degree. But for most areas mechanisms that would deal with difficult issues, such as conflicts of interest between different sectors of society, are kept firmly under the carpet. Specific goals remain undefined or indefinable.

The authors of the report are, of course, aware that learning cultures cannot be created through "changes in structures, needs and procedures" alone. But this is education policy dressed up in the language of "learning society" or "learning culture". For example, familiar arguments for increased public spending on education are rehearsed, in terms of its contribution to economic growth, social cohesion, social justice and even public order. But using the language of learning and the learning culture runs the risk of allowing every stakeholder to evade responsibility for making such provision. Learning should be distinguished from the provision of learning opportunities.

Lifelong learning is a seductive notion; but the essence of seduction is to arouse expectations that cannot be realised. Perhaps the report's greatest appeal lies in its vision of a democratic and inclusive learning society. This moves beyond the narrow vocationalism of the Conservative government's "lifetime learning". But strong on exhortation and recommendation, the report is weak on specification. In partnerships and forums galore, lamb will lie down with lion, each recognising the need for "high trust" and "understanding". As utopias go, this is a far nicer one than the last government offered: but utopian it remains.

Paradoxically, in an age of retreat from public policy, this report reads like a pressure group statement calling for government action. This might involve limitless extension of control, monitoring and policing of individual learning. The effect could only be to systematise and bureaucratise lifelong learning as a new educational system. In an age of deregulation in industry, social welfare, health, housing and so on, the report appears to assume that education might be the sole survivor of public policy in a sea of market forces. This report is, in fact, about educational policy. The question remains, however, whether learning can ever be the subject of public policy. We doubt it. Dearing and Kennedy, in not trying to address such a utopian agenda, do not face the same problems.

Peter Jarvis, Colin Griffin, John Holford, Linda Merricks and Paul Tosey are members of the Lifelong Learning Research Group at the school of educational studies, University of Surrey.

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