Beyond myths of lifelong learning

27th October 2000 at 01:00
Robert Beattie, chair of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, shares his vision of FE's future with Neil Munro

LIFELONG learning is a key ingredient in making communities more socially inclusive and in creating more active citizens.

That was the main message delivered yesterday by Robert Beattie, chairman of the Scottish Further Education Funding Council, in the latest Edinburgh Lecture.

Mr Beattie, who works for IBM, made it clear in an interview before his lecture that socially inclusive policies should include rural areas as well as deprived urban communities. Lifelong learning must be aimed at "real courses, for real people, for a real purpose" - whether in or out of work.

Under the title of Lifelong Learning: Whose Right? Whose Responsibility?, Mr Beattie sought to challenge a number of myths. "I am not pretending that lifelong learning is the answer to all our ills. But it is about making people more economically as well as socially viable. It therefore has to be about courses for a purpose. These can simply be a bit of learning which people set out to do for fun and which they then find turns up a totally unexpected benefit."

He cited the case of an Edinburgh grandfather who took up a computing course, run in the Pilton area by Telford College. The student then found that a skill he had in writing musical scores was something he could expand by using a computer. "You can catch people by guile almost," he said.

Mr Beattie, the chairman of the committee whose recommendations for a better deal for vulnerable 16 to 24-year-olds are now being implemented by the Executive, challenged another "myth", that lifelong learning is only about academic or intellectual development. For some, what matters are the vocational applications which can result.

Colleges and other providers must therefore be alert to the varying types of student need, Mr Beattie said. "Lifelong learning is not just about online tuition or video-conferencing, which will not suit everybody."

The FE sector had to appreciate hat individuals had a right to lifelong learning and that the inclusive agenda addressed the question of "what does a student need and how can we provide it to aid the lifelong learning process, rather than saying 'we are an FE college, here's what we provide, take it or leave it.' "

The implications for FE would be ones of unrelenting change, Mr Beattie warned. "People have to be big enough to accept that challenge. If you are innovative and try and fail, that's OK. What cannot be permitted is not to try for fear of failure and insist on no change."

But Mr Beattie acknowledged that colleges, whose Government funding over two spending rounds is being increased from pound;290 million to pound;436m partly to encourage greater student access, were increasingly embracing this agenda. He praised work being done by Telford College, which has a presence in a tower block in deprived Pilton and in a former bookie's in neighbouring Muirhouse; by North Highland College in Thurso, which is opening up in Dornoch; by Reid Kerr College in Paisley, which has 60 centres in 11 social inclusion partnership areas; and by Anniesland College in Glasgow's Drumchapel.

"In no way could these students all come to a single college site," Mr Beattie said. He said that, while the funding council would not be insisting on uniformity, he would prefer to see a college with a main campus and 20 to 30 outreach centres rather than two or three main buildings.

The message for colleges, therefore, was that they must widen participation, not just access, a view endorsed by the joint task force on widening participation set up by the further and higher education funding councils. "The challenge is that, once students are through the door, they are cared for in a way that ensures their participation in learning continues."

Colleges, encouraged by the FE funding council's study on supply and demand whose report is soon to be published, are now scrutinising "latent demand" to find out why they are getting recruits from some postcode areas but not others.

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