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Beyond the grade boundary

Can learning make you happier? Tom Schuller on efforts to prove that education are not merely academic.

We live, as Caroline St John-Brooks observed on this page recently, in an over-tested world. But although we measure pupils' progress frequently we seem to focus on only a narrow aspect of their development How much difference does learning make to people as parents or citizens or carers, or indeed in any of the many roles they will have apart from being a wage earner?

The Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning is trying to measure this. It is one of a number of such centres set up by the Department for Education and Skills in the past three years. As a co-director of the centre, I am hardly a disinterested party, but this was a bold initiative by the department, which has never sponsored research directly in this way.

It was also bold (as well as difficult) to give us such a broad remit: we are trying to gauge non-economic effects of learning including health, active citizenship and improvements in family lives. We are asking questions that are simple, and yet fundamental to the beliefs of most people involved in education.

Why is what we are doing important? It gives the Government a chance to shape policy on the basis of evidence rather than hunches, and for those policy issues to be debated openly and widely. It offers the challenge of looking at longer term and more broad educational outcomes. It reintroduces basic questions of the value of learning, counterbalancing the labour market-driven priorities which sometimes dominate.

One other particular goal we have is genuinely to bring together sophisticated quantitative analysis and original fieldwork, using in-depth interviews. My co-director John Bynner is in charge of wonderful longitudinal data sets, charting the progress of 12,000-strong cohorts from birth to adult life, so that we can explore what effects education has on, say, their health as well as employment. Our research director is an econometrician who analyses the complex link between, say, education and crime levels.

This work is complemented by talking to people about the effect of learning on their lives. So far we have conducted 130 of these interviews, and will do more as the programme develops.

What have we learnt? These are still early days, but for me, the strongest finding has been the way in which education simply sustains us in our daily lives. Education can transform, but we should not forget this fundamental sustaining power, which operates at the personal but also the collective level. For example, parents of young children who have precious little time to themselves while their children are at school nevertheless make time for part-time education. There were numerous accounts of people fighting off depression, or regaining their mental equilibrium as a result of their studies. Few of these would have ended up as mental health service users, but the effects of learning in sustaining mental and psychological well-being is hard to exaggerate.

Learning also glues us together, if that doesn't sound too unpleasant. Schools and colleges bring people together and they then learn to understand and tolerate different viewpoints. This underpins a sense of citizenship. But it has a more active side, as learning both grows out of and fosters people's community activity. It gives them the confidence and skills to participate in civic life, in the local neighbourhood or beyond.

This is what is sometimes called "social capital": when people get together in networks, sharing values and building trust amongst themselves to common ends. There is no doubt that, in quite complex ways, education fosters diverse kinds of social capital - and vice-versa.

We heard much about the poor quality of initial schooling, however long ago that was. But even those who had not been successful at school had often had a good teacher who had left them with some positive memory of education. These memories act as a spur to get back into the system, maybe decades later. Many teachers can have no idea of this kind of "sleeper" effect.

It is amazingly difficult to identify neat causality - where this specific bit of learning leads to that specific effect. But we are starting to put together a jigsaw of evidence on the wider benefits of learning.

Tom Schuller is dean of the faculty of continuing education at Birkbeck College, London

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