One vision beyond the barriers

Frank Coffield says the creators of a "learning society" must aim to transform British culture not just British citizens. Let me begin with a story. I recently attended an international conference on "Improving access to education". As I'd never visited the conference centre before, I set out early, armed with the map I'd been sent. The arrow on the map, pointing out the venue, led to a square which was the crossing-point of six major avenues.

The centre had no external sign, a traffic policeman had never heard of it, and so I began checking out the streets which fed into the square. I then began to notice others, clutching the same map, who were equally at a loss.

A group of us finally arrived late at the centre, to be pointedly told by an organiser that the official opening had been delayed because so few delegates had turned up on time. "You'd think so-called intelligent people could read a simple map," he said loudly. When I replied that the map was rather imprecise, he asked : "Are you making a complaint?" A Norwegian delegate remarked that the conference on improving access was proving difficult to get into, but this ironic pleasantry was treated as an insult: "We keep getting complaints but I've worked here for years," the organiser explained, "and never had any difficulty in finding the building."

Clearly, not all visual aids are helpful. The late arrival of so many delegates should not, I trust, be attributed to their low general ability, inadequate map-reading skills, or poor motivation. More to the point would be the inability of institutions to put themselves into the role of the newcomer and their resistance to accept and respond to criticism. It took us some time to put aside the feelings of being blamed for the failings of others and to appreciate the first talk, about the need for institutions to provide better guidance for new clients.

Sir Christopher Ball's recent address to the North of England Education Conference reminded me of this experience. Sir Christopher deserves support for putting the objective of developing a "learning society" on the national education agenda, and for insisting that educators should seize the initiative by defining such a society.

His speech ended with a challenge to other educators to present their vision of the "learning society". It is that challenge which I accept, in the hope of encouraging others to join in the debate and so improve the quality of our thinking and practice.

Although there were stimulating ideas in Sir Christopher's vision (such as redistributing resources towards pre-school and primary education), it also contained, to my mind, some weaknesses. First, it lacked the sociological imagination, which makes the essential distinction between personal troubles (such as motivation) and public issues of social structure. Sir Christopher's emphasis on "the primacy of personal responsibility for learning", on the "only three things of importance to successful learning: motivation, motivation and motivation", and on a "personal learning plan" is a mainly individualised approach.

There are, however, long-standing structural barriers and inequalities which prevent people from learning, which are embedded in British society and which Sir Christopher did not refer to: the class structure, inadequate funding, the institutionalised split between the academic and the vocational, and the systemic problems created for education by the labour market.

Concentrating on the motivation of pupils provides an over-simplified image; we need to add institutional expectations, and the notions of hierarchy, power and participation, which are all part of the hidden curriculum. Better still to view personal qualities and social structure as interacting elements in the single process of learning, which Jerome Bruner describes as "a communal activity, a sharing of the culture".

Indeed, when Sir Christopher's individualistic approach is taken together with his claim that "it is not obvious that the system is underfunded as a whole for the longer term", it is tempting to conclude that it would be difficult to slip a bus ticket between his stance and that of Government ministers. If Sir Christopher had to teach classes of 30-plus in the seriously inadequate school buildings throughout the country, he would more easily accept that the system is seriously underfunded. Again, these issues (dilapidated facilities and large class sizes) are beyond the control of individuals and their motivation.

Sir Christopher also revealed the missionary fervour of the recent convert. After a lifetime in higher education employing norm-referenced assessment, he admits belatedly to finding it "wholly pernicious". He argues instead for the extremist position of switching entirely to criterion referencing, because he is "fully persuaded" that the competence model, as advanced by the National Council for Vocational Qualifications, "is appropriate for both training and education - of all kinds". Given the practical and theoretical objections which have been made to this model, such a premature expression of satisfaction is ill-judged. We need to devise original forms of assessment which will foster lifelong professional learning, and a competence approach may prove inadequate. It would be more prudent to test the claims of the competence movement in a variety of settings, curriculum areas and levels before extending it to all kinds of education and training. We must avoid more innovation without evaluation.

A third criticism of Sir Christopher's vision is his neglect of the "learning society's" potential for regenerating democracy in this country. Part of the attraction of the term the "learning society" lies in the implicit promise of social, economic and political regeneration. In short, Sir Christopher's vision could be called the weak definition, the latter is the strong definition which calls for the transformation of institutions, structures and cultures to create a wealthy, cohesive society of active citizens.

We also need to move beyond claims unsupported by evidence that "flexible learning works" or simplistic slogans such as "Learning pays". The 12 per cent of graduates who are unemployed may find Sir Christopher's rhetoric rather hollow, as will all those who have taken one training course after another only to find themselves back on the dole queue. The concentration on the supply side ignores the fact that there is insufficient demand for skills in the economy to employ the increasing numbers of those with qualifications.

The concept of the "learning society" is in danger of becoming little more than a fashionable banality within the discourse of educators, trainers and politicians. Large conurbations apparently become "learning cities" just by appropriating the title. One way to rescue the phrase is to subject the best of current thinking to the empirical test.

Fortunately, that is what the Economic and Social Research Council will be doing over the next four years with a Pounds 3 million programme devoted to "The learning society: knowledge and skills for employment". In this way, some intellectual and political life may be breathed into the term and a more adequate vision developed. The weaknesses in the current vision are part of the reason for Britain's poor performance.

"By the way," as Rab C Nesbitt would say, that conference centre has since invited me to return, and, yes, included another copy of the same map. I'm all for extending education, it is just the institutions I can't seem to change.

Frank Coffield is professor of education at Durham University and national director of the ESRC's research programme into the "learning society".

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