You may say you're a drifter. . .

April 26, 1996

Seventy-one per cent of adults believe that learning can lead to a better quality of life. But 63 per cent admit that they are unlikely to take part in a course of any sort over the next 12 months. We live in a culture that broadly understands the case for learning - but is not yet sufficiently motivated to turn that knowledge into action.

The National Campaign for Learning, launched this week at the Drapers Hall in the City of London, aims to change that culture. We aim to persuade people to care about their personal learning in the same way that we are all gradually learning to care about the environment and our own health.

As a first step, the campaign commissioned MORI to conduct a "State of the Nation" poll of more than 5,000 adults and children throughout the country to assess attitudes to learning. We discovered that the population falls into four broadly equal groups, which we have named Improvers (those who know the value of learning and are taking effective action to better themselves); Strivers (those who know the value of learning but are not doing enough or applying themselves effectively); Drifters (those who know the value of learning, are dissatisfied with their lives, but are doing little or nothing to learn how to change the situation); and Strugglers (who neither value learning nor practice it).

We believe that this analysis of learning attitudes and behaviour is more powerful than traditional notions of the "ability range" (IQ) or classifications based on levels of qualification - GCSE, A-level, graduate, or (G)NVQ 2, 3, 4, etc. The aim of the campaign is to develop marketing strategies to persuade people to take effective responsibility for their own learning and gradually increase the proportion of Improvers.

My vision is for every individual to have a Personal Learning Action Plan, every organisation to become a Learning Organisation and for everybody to be in reach of an accessible provider of learning opportunities - whether in a school, college, university, the workplace, or at home. If the campaign is successful it will generate a substantial new demand for advanced learning (further and higher education). What should colleges and universities be doing to satisfy it?

The MORI survey reveals that time (not cost) is the greatest barrier to learning. Lack of time, which is linked to family commitment and work pressures, is the commonest reason given for inactivity. Some people feel they are too old to learn; others say they are not interested. Surprisingly few report a lack of awareness, or availability, of suitable courses. The Improvers are more common among the young and social classes A and B; the Strugglers predominate among older people and social classes D and E. And yet it appears that there are basically two kinds of people: those who understand the value of learning and are finding ways forward, and those who do not and are not. For most of us our reasons for not getting involved with learning turn out to be mere excuses.

I believe that the colleges and universities should study these findings. Those that have not already done so should make local surveys to find out what people want and need to learn (and how they want to learn it) and then provide accordingly. Most of us want to learn at a time and place and pace of our own choice. Clearly time is the greatest challenge. Interestingly, most people prefer to learn in a structured environment like a college or university, using books rather than new technology. More like to learn within a small group of students, than study alone or by means of open or distance learning. British adults are conservative learners, by and large.

Responsive providers should find solutions to the time problem, enabling people to study at night and at weekends, to combine study at home and in the workplace with attendance at college or university. They will seek out those who are apathetic or uninterested in advanced learning. And they will tackle the problem of cost by targeting help to the minority for whom this is an issue. They will reach out to the Strugglers, Drifters and Strivers and convert them. Over the next five years, I expect the campaign to reveal much that is encouraging, and much that is uncomfortable, for the providers.

The Campaign for Learning is a marketing campaign. Good marketing creates and satisfied demand. It also offers guidance. The customer is king, but all kings need counsellors. The message to the learner is that it is good to learn, for learning pays; and to the providers of learning, more will mean different.

Sir Christopher Ball is chairman of the National Campaign for Learning and director of learning at the Royal Society for Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). He is chancellor of the University of Derby.

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