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Learning is a skill to last for life

The ability to learn how to learn should start from birth, and government policy must address this, writes David Hargreaves.

That England languishes near the bottom of the league table of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries for the continuing participation in education of post-16-year-olds came as a shock to many people.

Surely the reforms of recent years that have successfully raised our position in the league tables of achievement for 15-year-olds have also encouraged young people to remain in the system beyond the end of compulsory education?

Apparently not. Lifelong education means that the whole population should enjoy continuing opportunities to participate in education, either for the sheer pleasure of learning for its own sake, or to increase their skills for employability, or both. It is now clear that however much we improve the achievements of young people at school, we do not thereby automatically endow them with a commitment to lifelong learning. Something is going wrong.

Lifelong learning lasts from cradle to grave. The foundations must be laid during the school years: what happens then shapes attitudes that last for life. If the Government is committed to lifelong learning, then it must ensure that all young people by the age of 16:

* retain from infancy their natural motivation to learn;

* have acquired the skills of learning variable content in multiple contexts;

* leave school with a commitment to further learning.

Though children achieve at different rates, the entitlement to these three things by the age of 16 is universal. But it is not happening. Prevention of alienation and disengagement from learning would be so much better than cure. Getting the foundations for lifelong learning right makes human and economic sense.

So what action should the Government take as it plans for a third term? How could this become central to its goal of transforming education? It means focusing much more strongly on developments that need to be more central to policy.

The first of these is learning how to learn. Some students under achieve because they have never really learned this. Memorising and reproducing knowledge is just one aspect of learning and does not increase learning skills.

The various schemes that are becoming available to help students to learn how to learn are extremely popular among teachers, who see them as increasing student self-confidence. Assessment for learning, particularly as developed by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam, enhances both metacognition and test results. The Government should build on the introduction of assessment for learning in key stage 3 by ensuring a better balance between formative and summative assessment throughout the school years.

The second development concerns the range of generic skills that run alongside curriculum content. In schools, teachers are already adopting a variety of approaches - thinking skills, problem-solving skills, and the techniques of research, enquiry and investigation.

More needs to be done to explore what works best. But it is now widely accepted by teachers that these skills are vital to helping students gain motivation to learn.

The project is the third development. One of the effects of the introduction of the national curriculum was to reinforce the ubiquity of the short lesson in a single subject. This is a severe constraint on the structure of the school day. Pioneers, such as the Royal Society of Arts'

Opening Minds project, are challenging students to plan a task that needs sustained effort.

The fourth development is the use of mentors. Government policy is well placed to expand on the use of a wider range of adults as mentors and to encourage peer tutoring among students.

The final and most important development is personalised learning. This is in part because it challenges the profession to meet the needs of every student, and in part because it opens the door to the combination of incremental and radical innovation, encapsulated in the four developments described above, that is needed to meet this ambitious goal.

The Government had a noble vision for lifelong learning in The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain, published some seven years ago.

"Learning... helps make ours a civilised society, develops the spiritual side of our lives and promotes active citizenship... It helps us fulfil our potential and opens doors to a love of music, art and literature... We must sustain a regard for learning at any age."

It should return to these inspiring words of David Blunkett and determine to turn rhetoric into reality.

Learning for life: the foundations of lifelong learning, by David Hargreaves, is published by The Policy Press on June 23

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