Colin Flint reviews a new book that studies lifelong learning participation in Wales
The subtitle of Creating a Learning Society? is "Learning Careers and Policies for Lifelong Learning". It presents the results of a large-scale study of patterns of lifelong participation in learning, the social and economic determinants of these patterns and their impact on social exclusion. The research underpinning the findings was conducted entirely in Wales, but while there were, and are, some very particular characteristics of the area studied, there is a high level of applicability to many other regions of Britain.
The first chapter examines the notion of a learning society, and identifies the two principal arguments in support of its creation. These are the economic case (economic prosperity comes from higher standards of education and training) and the social justice argument (our education system is and always has been unfair and needs to be changed by the provision of much wider opportunity).
These arguments underpin all recent policy reforms and initiatives, though the practical interpretation of these intended reforms is too often retrogressive, as for example with the Schedule 2 obstacles to the funding of leisure education.
As Stephen Gorard and Gareth Rees state, "despite policies and pledges, there has been static national participation in all lifelong learning in recent years. In fact, the gap in terms of access between those who are already poorly educated and those who are well educated appears to be widening." They argue that there is no simple technical solution to problems of access to adequate learning opportunities, nor (presumably) to the disinclination of those who do not participate to take the opportunities when they exist.
"Creating a learning society involves wider social and economic transformation as well", including full recognition of the value of different forms of learning and particularly informal and uncertificated learning.
The book analyses the various methods used to improve our understanding of why some adults participate in lifelong learning while others do not. It conducts a detailed study of changes over time, and the interplay of social, cultural and economic factors in industrial South Wales.
There is fascinating material here, tracing the effects of industrial decline and rebuilding. Unemployment remains relatively high, earnings are among the lowest in Britain and the authors argue that there has been a weakening of the strong adult education traditions in the area at a time when they might be most needed.
Chapter 4 looks at patterns of individual participation, at the trajectories of those described as non-participants, delayed learners, transitional learners, and lifelong learners, and at time, place and gender as determinants.
The next chapter deals with families, and family background as a key predictor of lifelong participation in education. There is little evidence that the UK is moving towards a "classless" society in terms of learning, the authors report.
A later chapter deals with informal learning. There are some urgent policy issues raised here: "The reality of a learning society with a far wider spread of participation than currently could be achieved by simply recognising the validity and relevance of informal learning episodes."
The book concludes with a chapter on the prospects for the achievement of the learning society. Current initiatives, the authors argue, are still output-driven, they replicate or reinforce existing inequalities, and they deal almost exclusively with improvements to formal initial education or training. We should look at other models and systems of measurement.