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Gaze into the future of post-16

Christine King sets out the challenging and exciting agenda for the new Learning and Skills Research Centre

TIMES are changing in this business of education. Further and higher education institutions drive forward their, and the Government's, inclusion agenda and, at the same time, struggle to make themselves fit for the new global and competitive agenda, ready to meet rapidly changing demands from their customers. Meanwhile professionals, inside and outside of formal learning communities, struggle to support learners and to reach non-learners. Learners struggle to make the best choices and non-learners wonder, in passing, why people bother. Policy-makers paint the big picture and set targets.

We all need information and advice. Where might this come from? One source is research. This month sees the publication of the first strategy for the new Learning and Skills Research Centre. Launched at the end of October 2001, the centre's mission is to help shape the future direction of post-16 education and training through an ambitious research programme. Through commissioned research, we will ask how people think and learn, how to turn non-participants into learners, how to develop skills in the workforce and how to harness the power of e-learning.

Being at the very beginning of such a new venture is both exciting and daunting. We aim to ensure that research is rooted in reality and that it will, at the same time, allow us to gaze into the future. In combining the best of research with the best of current practice we will aim to influence the present as well as the future. We will be using the skills of experienced researchers to predict what education and training might look like some years down the line. We will look at the future shape of society and will set our research firmly in that context. How far can technology-assisted learning take us, for example, and what will a world in which knowledge is navigated by learners rather than transferred by teachers look like for learners?

Last autumn, we began a consultation process to try and identify the key issues in post-16 education and training. We ran workshops around the country and talked to experts, both researchers and practitioners. It was a stimulating experience, which threw up lots of new ideas, approaches and challenges to our received thinking.

Taking on board the consultation's feedback, the LSRC's priorities will be long-term studies in under-researched areas like work-based learning and participation, focusing on practical research. We want to look beyond specific contexts to produce usable outcomes.

So what are the big issues? We need to ask how deep-seated problems such as social exclusion, inequality, poverty, low levels of qualifications and skills, poor literacy and racial, cultural and religious intolerance are being tackled and how we might tackle them in the future. We need to consider how to address far-reaching changes such as globalisation, an ageing population and the speed of innovation in international economies. We need to offer some conclusions on how we might achieve the goal of a learning society and the ambitious targets for participation.

This is an ambitious and enormous agenda. We are asked to think freely and boldly about the present and the future and to see how our research could help the learners of today and tomorrow. Our role is to help create a strong evidence base which is of real use in the development of sustainable policies.

The first pieces of commissioned research reflect these priorities. They cover five broad themes: non-formal learning; learning in settings shared by young people and adults; learning styles; thinking skills; and the impact of research on policy and practice. What we hope to discover is more about how people learn, how to reach the socially excluded and how to make sure that research findings are put into practice. Above all, we want to commission and promote research that makes a difference.

Christine King chairs the Advisory Forum of the Learning and Skills Research Centre. She is also vice-chancellor of Staffordshire University and president of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education. She will be speaking at the summer conference of the Learning and Skills Development Agency on June 18-19

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