IS lifelong learning the big idea to deliver social cohesion and economic prosperity or is it simply a fad which has already passed its popularity peak?
Lifelong learning will either take off over the next few years or, like so many education bandwagons, it will become a hearse.
Such questions concern not only those with lifelong learning in their job title but also a government which, in three years, has developed a noble vision of lifelong learning with a battery of initiatives but, as yet, no strategy.
Lifelong learning is an unlikely candidate to be considered the panacea for our economic and democratic problems. For an economy based on knowledge, we simply don't know enough about it. Books, articles, texts and conferences routinely over-blow and over-praise lifelong learning.
Meanwhile, it remains under-researched and under-theorised. We do not make use of what little knowledge we do have. Instead, speakers repeat either conventional wisdoms without evidence or popular myths for which contradictory data exists. I'll scream if any other platform performer tells me that "the pace of change is accelerating".
Fortunately, research evidence is beginning to challenge the vacuous rhetoric in which lifelong learning has up until now been entangled. This month sees the publication of the second and final volume of findings from the Economic and Social Research Council's Learning Society Programme. The 13 projects in the programme have produced an overview chapter on the aims, methods, findings and policy implications of the research. The two books offer a critical analysis of the concept of a learning society, highlighting the most significant findings and conclusions for policy. Two of these will be introduced here.
One project conducted a nationally-representative survey of the skills of British workers, concluding that around two-thirds of the workforce are not employed by firms with strategies for developing their skills.
New divisions are appearing in the labour market. Employees need to understand that the type of firm they join will affect their access to new skills.
It is the part-time workforce, those in non-standard jobs, people over 50 and the self-employed who miss out most. The failure to train is the biggest challenge in creating a learning society. It is one which employers and government, rather than the education and training system, need to address urgently.
Twenty year ago, power over Britain's training needs was given to employers. The Conservatives assured us such a move was necessary to ensure the culture of training changed without recourse to legislation of the kind they eagerly imposed on education. The evidence from this research programme, and from the National Skills Task Force, shows how spectacularly the training and enterprise councils failed.
The latter report shows only 4 per cent of firms with fewer than 50 employees and only 20 per cent with fewer than 200 became Investors in People.
The voluntary approach has failed, yet the new Learning and Skills Council proposes to adhere to the same policy.
Governments make endless demands on teachers to "modernise" but they are reluctant to stand up to employers in case they relocate. Getting small and medium-sized firms involved in training is the nut that no one has cracked. It has eluded even
countries like Denmark, which have offered 100 per cent wage subsidies to small firms for training. The lack of knowledge of successful practice in this area will be a thorn in the new council's side.
Another project has, for the first time, described five lifelong learning "trajectories" or "pathways", by studying the educational and employment histories of more than 1,100 people in south Wales. Only 32 per cent of the sample could be described as lifelong learners. A further 31 per cent had not had any education or training at work since school. This is the scale of the problem we face in creating a learning society.
Researchers argue that such non-participation cannot be understood by invoking individual traits like "lack of motivation" or "low self-esteem". It is deeply structured by patterns of social disadvantage and those who choose not to participate view education and training as "not for the likes of us". Policies which concentrate on widening access are likely to have limited impact unless they are integrated with wider, well-resourced strategies to combat poverty and social exclusion.
These two deep-seated and structural problems are likely to still be tormenting governments long after lifelong learning has been quietly shelved. Lifelong learning? I give it 10 years at the most to prove that it can make structural difference.
Frank Coffield is professor of education at Newcastle University and was, from 1994-2000, director of the ESRC's Learning Society Programme. The views expressed are personal. The two volumes of findings, "Differing Visions of a Learning Society", are available from The Policy Press, Bristol