Breathtakingly simplistic introduction to lifetime learning; Commentary;Opinion;FE Focus

9th February 1996 at 00:00
The Government has issued a consultation paper on lifetime learning. For some reason "lifetime" is to be preferred over "lifelong" or any other epithet to suggest that learning doesn't stop when schooling finishes. The import of this linguistic nuance escapes me, unless it is to avoid confusion with categories of milk.

Anyway, there is a certain ambivalence in the document about what kind of life it is dealing with. The opening paragraph refers to working life and the opening sentence is about skill levels and national competitiveness. This suggests that we are in familiar Government territory, dealing only with the time which is spent at work and with the learning which relates directly to economic success.

But the next paragraph talks about the key part learning plays in our wide social and cultural activity and the benefits which extend beyond the economic field. The foreword, signed by Education and Employment Secretary Gillian Shephard, Scottish Secretary Michael Forsyth and Welsh Secretary William Hague, identifies older people as a particularly significant group of learners.

Later in the introduction the document says its central goal is exploring how to create a culture of lifetime learning and what responsibility employers, individuals and education providers should be in this. The role of Government, it tells us, is also to be described.

Well, the role of Government is certainly described quite extensively in one sense - a very substantial proportion of the document is devoted to listing the Government's achievements in lifetime learning. But the basic rationale for Government action is explicit - it "should intervene only where it can effectively lower the barriers that prevent the learning market working properly, or accelerate the introduction of good practice: it should not seek to distort decisions on learning".

Now I applaud the focus on a culture of lifetime learning and the sharp prompt to review the split of responsibilities. However many courses are put on, or colleges built, or open-learning packages marketed, it is only when people start looking on learning as something to be taken for granted, like going to the cinema, that we shall have an effective learning society.

Culture is about the embeddedness of certain types of value and behaviour, so that it becomes part of the collective psyche to aspire to learn. I agree that this requires a rethinking of who does what and who is paid to do what. But the image of the market put forward in the document is breathtakingly simplistic and it is in direct contradiction with the objective of creating a learning culture.

A market "driven by customers and their choices" is one where the nature of the transaction is a commercial one. It is the money which does the talking. But culture and especially a learning culture, is about people talking with each other, verbally or through symbols, in some kind of direct relationship rather than through the medium of money alone.

If it is markets and customers (and "after-sales service") which are to characterise the culture, then how do we differentiate this from a lottery culture or a football culture? Presumably it is simple: the commodity on which most money is spent is the prize culture and the others follow. The extent to which Scotland has a learning culture will be measured by how much money is spent on it.

The trouble with this kind of talk is that it brings into disrepute serious issues which should be addressed, like the changing relationship between providers and consumers and how to strengthen individual commitment to learning.

It implies that the Government does not wish to take a view on the value of different types of learning. I am a thorough-going relativist, but this does not prevent me from trying to persuade people that certain kinds of activity have a higher value than others, independent of the price-tag attached.

One reason why a learning culture is needed is that we can then discuss these value issues more intelligently. Having said that I would encourage readers to join in the debate for themselves, for there is much more to be said. The consultation document has a brief section specifically on Scotland. Copies are available from the DFEE in Moorfoot, Sheffield, S1 4PQ.

Professor Tom Schuller is director for the centre for continuing education at the University of Edinburgh.

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