Castle of lifelong learning built on shifting sands of myth

25th May 2001 at 01:00
ONE of the chief obstacles to creating a learning society in the UK is the power which conventional wisdom about lifelong learning exerts on all our thinking. At conferences throughout the country, a number of fashionable (but false) views are repeatedly expressed which either bring discussion to an end or lead meetings to accept practical conclusions which are likely to prove more harmful than helpful. Three of these "killer quotations" will be described here, but before doing that, one positive outcome from the advent of the Learning and Skills Council deserves attention.

The national LSC and 47 local councils has galvanised all organisations concerned with lifelong learning into reappraising their roles and relationships. In the process, many key local figures have been drawn into discussing publicly the strengths and weaknesses of our national, regional and local arrangements, in some cases, for the first time. Given the complexity of the system and the plethora of organisations involved, the networking which takes place at such meetings helps to create easier working relationships and strengthens the commitment of professionals to tackling the problems of their region.

However, over the past year, I have attended many of these conferences in different parts of England and they tend to have one common feature: the emergence of a number of sincerely-held opinions about lifelong learning which have no basis in fact. These assertions are likely to become the building blocks of learning partnerships' action plans but, if they are not challenged, the plans may founder. For example, discussion groups are told:

"As we all know, there's no such thing as a job for life any more. Everyone will have seven or eight different jobs in a working lifetime and we must plan accordingly."

Not so! Research by Peter Nolan and his colleagues on the Economic and Social Research Council's Future of Work programme has shown that "job tenure rates have scarcely changed in the past 20 years ... Temporary work has remained static and the incidence of multiple job-holding has stalled at about 5 per cent of the workforce." The modern myth about the end of careers needs to be exposed as such - a myth which is contradicted by the evidence. In al the easy talk about the ever-quickening pace of change, continuities with the past are being ignored.

Second, when professionals are confronted with statistics of non-participation in formal learning in their area, the understandable response is to say: "It's all down to individual motivation. If only we can re-engage these people with the formal system, we'll have cracked the problems." Unfortunately, the problems are far more complex than this typical comment suggests.

For a start, it frees the formal system from blame for any part in low participation rates. It glosses over the limited access that many workers, especially part-timers, have to formal training at work, and it transfers the problem onto those least fitted to respond. Even more crucially, it diverts attention away from organisationed learning, by which means all British firms could become more innovative. As research by Gareth Rees, of Cardiff University, on the effects of lifelong learning targets in south Wales has shown, individual motivation is necessary for the creation of a knowledge-based economy but it is not enough.

Third, the advice for adults and young people should not mislead, as the following oft-repeated claim does: "If you've the qualifications and keep your skills up to date, you'll always be able to walk into a decent job." If only it were that simple.

The supply side may produce appropriately-qualified and trained people, but if the employer demand in certain areas is weak, then the newly-qualified may have to move considerable distances to find suitable employment. Even then, the research record shows that too many British employers are very poor at developing the talents of their workforce. We also need to develop strategies to encourage thousands of companies to start producing higher-quality goods and services.

Walter Bagehot, the 19th century economist and writer, claimed that one of the greatest pains to human nature is the pain of a new idea. But the difficulty we confront is likely to be more painful still - because it is easier to take a new idea on board than it is to rid oneself of old ones which still enjoy widespread popular support.

Frank Coffield is professor of education at Newcastle University

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