A learners' dystopia;FE Focus;Review;Books

Alan Tuckett

SOCIAL POLITICAL AND ECONOMIC CONTEXTS OF POLICY DEVELOPMENT. Edited by John Ahier and Geoff Esland. Published by the Open University and Routledge. January 1999, pound;15.99.

THERE is no alternative to creating a high-quality lifelong learning system for all.

It will, of course, lead to some highly-qualified unemployed people. However, it will also, as the Jacques Delors European White Paper suggested, give us the tools to invent the new economies needed to crack our problems.

The crucial relationship between work and learning is well reviewed in this Open University text - a digestible form of the key arguments which taken together quicken discussion. A pity then that it misses the crucial point about lifelong learning for all.

This book - the first of two volumes of Education, Training and the Future of Work - reviews social, political and economic contexts of policy development. Its editors are uneasy about the cross-party consensus in the UK on the inevitability of globalisation and deregulated labour markets.

They recognise that "it may be thought (the essays) take an unduly pessimistic view of current policies."

For this they are unapologetic, insisting that public education and training policy is too narowly focused on confirming, rather than questioning the principles on which it is based.

So, they note wryly: "Britain's skill problem is at least as much one of low demand for skills as one of inadequate supply. Policy concentrates on enhancing supply in a system which is employer-led and which to a large extent ignores deep-seated reasons for the lack of employer demand."

Contributors to the book argue that increasingly unstable work patterns erode earnings and create a "rapid increase in dysfunctional families, individual stress and deteriorating communities".

In other essays the Church reminds us there is nothing sacrosanct about markets, and that the demands of wage labour markets do much to shape the work that goes on invisibly in the domestic and communal economy.

Other contributors suggest that education and training secure the redistribution of work between individuals, not an expansion in the number of jobs.

Some argue that the creation of a skilled and educated labour force cannot of itself solve the problem of unemployment and that - for me most interestingly - the distribution of education and training, like the distribution of health, affects everybody.

Health studies show that societies with the narrowest diffentials in pay and status are the healthiest overall.

Other chapters show how hard it has been for institutions to meet the needs of lifelong learners given how the education system has increasingly become market-driven.

For the editor, New Labour is broadly continuing a Tory project notably in sparing employers an obligation to train. I found the argument challenging, and much of it rings true.

And yet, so much dystopia produces indigestion. Government does matter, but so do learners and workers. Their agency in prefiguring new roles for learning in the economy is missing here.

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Alan Tuckett

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