Government may turn to compulsion in lifelong learning

Kathryn Ecclestone

THE main statutory responsibility of the Learning and Skills Council is to stimulate what the government hopes will be an unprecedented demand for learning. And an unprecedented amount of public money will be used.

But what if after a few years of the LSC's huge new role a hard core of "ineducable" young people and adults just do not want it? This unpalatable question was just one of the controversial issues that leaders of industry and education grappled with at the last of the 2001 round tables organised by City amp; Guilds and sponsored by the TES.

Much feel-good rhetoric and sloganising surrounds a drive to encourage individuals to participate and achieve in education and training. "Empowering the disempowered", "freeing-up choice, flexibility and access", "putting power into the hands of individuals" and "learning on demand" all signal a powerful challenge to entrenched institutional interests and ideas about what learners need.

New ways of reaching individuals, such as the Ford motor company's development programme, show that people will move from following personal interests in the firm's time into other types of learning in their own time. And E-learning in "bite sized chunks" - available on demand everywhere from pubs to football clubs to people's homes, and leading to certificates of achievement and qualifications - is seen as the cornerstone of a flexible lifelong learning utopia.

But encouraging voluntary participation with imaginative incentives and flexible, accessible modules and courses might not be enough. Instead, the round table discussed whether government may have to resort to compulsion.

Pilot schemes to withdraw welfare benefits from adults refusing to do "basic skills" courses are already setting precedents for harder measures. This signals that merely responding to individuals' needs might be just a little too liberal. The state might have to steer public funding more closely to the needs of the economy, such as rectifying a deficit in technical skills at level 3.

Even a voluntary approach has got to lead individuals somewhere. Otherwise, there is a real danger of fobbing people off with certificates rather than real qualifications with purpose. Flexible learning may not always be a good thing. Sometimes learning might need to progress through a subject, involving difficult ideas and skills. Or a pathway might have to be sustained and coherent, rather than flexible and broken up.

As well as trying to make everything easy and flexible, we need to motivate people to think they can go on to do difficult things. If we avoid this task, learners could end up without a proper grounding in some subjects, especially when many students taking modules in university and college courses seem not to really know why they are there or where they are heading.

Although a qualifications framework based on a coherent system of credits and flexible combinations of modules is essential in sorting out the current jungle, so too is honest and informed guidance to steer people to a proper end goal.

The City and Guilds round table showed that good intentions to motivate individuals will not overcome problems in the tricky political balancing act of resorting to sticks while trying to encourage a real cultural change that will generate a commitment to education and training.

Ultimately, individual incentives such as withdrawing benefits, paying people to learn, offering them loans and making qualifications more accessible are unlikely to work unless underpinned by social partnerships, economic regeneration, and trust between local communities and education providers. And if we decide that some individuals must be pressurised, then so too must employers, to make them invest in learning.

So, instead of starting with individual needs, it might be necessary to attend to these deep-seated economic and cultural issues and then move on to the specific requirements of particular subjects and crafts at different levels of skill. This suggests a need to go back to the wider role of education and its content rather than throwing resources and effort at meeting individual needs.

Such problems suggest that, for all its high-tech promise, e-learning is merely a small part of many attempts to stimulate demand for learning. The successful experience of the Open University shows that technologically-based delivery of qualifications has to build directly on good markets and expertise in specific subjects.

Yet, it seems that initiatives such as the University for Industry act as if they are moving into a "green field" site. Without a strong system of vocational education to build on, new forms of e-learning run the risk of trying to compete with existing programmes without any real clear sense of purpose.

Awarding bodies such as City amp; Guilds are caught up at the heart of these problems. If the political thrust is towards flexibility and individual learning, they have little choice but to go down this path, creating new markets to respond to apparent demand.

However, although there are no quick fix answers to the tensions this drive creates, the 2001 series of round tables shows that awarding bodies, like the rest of us involved in vocational education, cannot duck the big questions.

Dr Kathryn Ecclestone is Visiting Research Fellow, City amp; Guilds and Lecturer in Post-Compulsory Education, University of Newcastle. For summaries of other round table discussions, contact Andrew Sich, Head of Corporate Affairs, City amp; Guilds, 1 Giltspur Street, London EC1A 9DD

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Kathryn Ecclestone

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