Not for others but for all

MY WORKING life has become increasingly structured and demanding in recent years. I start earlier in the morning and finish later; meetings start on time, have a strict agenda, and end with action points and minutes. Most lunch breaks are taken at the desk with a sandwich, catching up with post and reading.

But does it have to be like that? For the past few months I have been spending about two days a week in Italy. Initially, I was very frustrated. Meetings started only when enough people had arrived, and people continuously drifted in and out, answering their mobile phones, or taking coffee breaks. Outcomes and follow-up were only informally recorded.

And then I realised that I was in an organisation that was at least as successful as my own and demonstrably more flexible and entrepreneurial. And they were doing it with fewer people. There was clearly a major cultural and style difference, and I had to adjust to that and to new ways of working.

I was reminded of this issue of culture when I read in my newspaper this week that the flagship lifelong education plan was to be renamed. Advisers had warned the Government that the name was too narrow and elitist.

Now, it has been obvious to us all from the beginning that UfI was the wrong name, being neither university nor industry, but a change of name is not going to bring instant success. The pilot in Sunderland has done tremendous work in demonstrating that demand for learning exists when the opportunities are made available, but I believe that for UfI (or Learning Direct, or whatever) to be successful on a wide scale in reaching those people it needs to reach, there has to be a major culture change towards learning.

I work in a London borough where academic achievement is low, and the percentage of post-16 population staying on in full-time education is among the lowest in the country. And that is not because of lack of opportunity, nor quality of provision. It is fundamentally about expectations of the pupils and particularly of their parents.

It is four years since Charles Handy, writing in the Economist about lifetime learning, said: "This has to be a supply-led revolution. Schools need to start it. Everyone could also be promised a chance of FE at some time in their lives. But the new supply will happen only when we realise that the old contract no longer holds, that our destiny is ours alone to shape, that brains not brawn make wealth today and that learning is not one of those childish things to be done away with as soon as we may."

I still see this as an incredibly powerful message. Further education colleges must be at the centre of lifelong learning: they must be the "new supply". They are uniquely qualified for this and are the only providers who already touch all who must be involved - students of all ages and backgrounds, training organisations, and industry.

But colleges alone will not change people's view of their destiny. This needs to be a concerted effort by government, schools, colleges, industry and others to change the expectations, behaviour, and ultimately the culture of the people of this country.

In reshaping the management culture of my company, the most fundamental lesson I have learned is that change will only happen when (and if) the behaviour of leaders reflects the new values. Lifelong learning should not be for others but for all. We should see government ministers, industrialists and principals undertaking learning to update their skills: and we should see them cascading encouragement and opportunity for others to do the same.

And I think the biggest responsibility is on all employers to set aside time and money for their people to improve existing work-related skills and learn new ones; further they should be encouraging self-study in areas that are not directly work-related. Having had demonstrated the value placed upon lifelong learning, as well as its intrinsic benefit, employees will then start to influence their households and families, and we will start to produce a generation that has a true recognition and expectation of lifelong learning.

When we have achieved that, we will have truly changed the culture.

Jim Scrimshaw is chair of the Association of Colleges.

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