Held back by the taint of stereotypes

Negative labels are hampering efforts to attract new types of student, argues Kathryn Ecclestone

A NEW set of labels is doing the rounds on the lifelong learning conference circuit. For example, teenagers who spurn careers guidance and "learning mentors" are referred to as "the dejected and rejected".

After a ninth successful year for Adult Learners' Week, we need to find new ways to celebrate achievement and to motivate more people to learn. But stereotypes about under-represented groups risk undermining our efforts.

The week shows traditional institutions how they can reach out to new groups of adults. But, in place of uplifting images of learners, are negative images of those who do not want to participate. Genuine concerns about how poor education exacerbates social exclusion and long-term poverty are becoming tainted.

A seminar on "non-traditional students" in higher education presented a long litany of characteristics that "these people" would be likely to have: broken homes, parents without qualifications or jobs, lack of self-esteem, lack of a "learning culture" at home.

In a conference about widening participation in further education, "the disaffected" were portrayed as likely to be illiterate, single parents, living in isolation, unable to help their children with homework, having low self-esteem, prone to poor health and depression, poorly motivated for learning and lacking social skills.

The problem of motivation is very real. A recent study at Cardiff University shows that many adults, including employers, see formal learning either as something to be avoided at all costs, or to be endured for a marketable payoff at the end, such as a "good" qualification or immediate relevance to pressing job demands.

Another study, at King's College, London, shows that mtivation is a problem among 15 to 20 per cent of 16-year-olds in London. It shows that inclination to study is affected deeply by social class, perceptions of job prospects and past educational experiences.

The reasons for non-participation are complex. The danger is that labels turn complexity into platitude. Increasingly, it seems that anyone who doesn't participate in learning must be "dejected" and "disaffected".

This attitude emerges from a public debate about education that often portrays it as the magic key to solving everything from low self-esteem, Alzheimer's disease, depression, poor housing, unemployment, fragmented communities and lack of civic pride.

Tony Blair's pronouncement along these lines that "education is social justice" - instead of one, crucial way of contributing to it - leads to a simplistic link between poverty and poor motivation for learning.

As the Kennedy Report about further education unwittingly shows, it's an all-too-easy step from wanting non-participating adults to "fulfil their potential"

to demanding that they

"modify their approach and

their behaviour".

Perhaps this type of moral judgment is the most damaging effect of negative stereotypes. Once we let these labels take hold, we view people from "non-traditional" groups who do venture through the doors of institutions as in need of "help". We should see them as people with diverse needs, abilities and aspirations, but who might be "hard to reach".

If we see education as the panacea for all society's problems, it's a short step to blaming individuals for their own fate if they fail to engage in it.

Kathryn Ecclestone is lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Newcastle and Visiting Research Fellow at the City of Guilds of London Institute

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