Chelsea scores an own goal for learning society;Opinion

6th March 1998 at 00:00
What have Ruud Gullit, the 73 bus and a dry cleaner from Islington got in common? Well, it's a long story but it starts like this. People have begun to predict that in the next century we will live in the learning society. If this is true then it would be a good thing to have an idea of what it's like before it arrives. I tiptoed into this discussion in my book The Learning Game, published last year, and thought about entering the academic debate which is raging on the issue. But in the end I decided to leave this to others since it, like many academic debates, seemed in danger of becoming more obscure rather than less.

So I began to think about the learning society in a different way. I asked myself the harsher question: how would I recognise the learning society if I fell over it? Rather than worry about the academic definitions that were being concocted in journals that nobody reads, I tried to dream up some experiences which might befall the average citizens of this putative learning society as they went about their lawful business. Here then are the first five cameos from a learning society.

First, every time you hear a football manager on television he (or one day she) will sound as lucid, incisive and witty in at least one language as Ruud Gullit does in three. The era of over-the-moon-jimmy-it's-the-result-that-counts-at-the-end-of-the-day will be gone and football managers will have become linguistic role models for the millions of children - boys and girls - who admire them so much.

Second, you will find poems on the Underground every time you travel. They already have lit up tube journeys for millions of passengers who had become bored with being told they needed an even stronger mouthwash. Even the poor souls who brave the Northern Line each day have surely been cheered up by a verse or two of Housman or Blake. In the learning society you will find that the concept has been extended and involves children as well as the greats of the literary canon. Better still you will find it being pursued on the 73 bus that rattles in from Stamford Hill.

Third, you will find that the main television channels run high-quality revision programmes aimed at GCSE pupils from February through to May. The programmes will run at night so that they can be recorded. They will involve hard-hitting straightforward revision advice in each of the main subjects. They will be clear and entertaining and draw in the stars of the screen to inspire the young people who will be watching in their thousands. Parents will say to their teenage children "Turn on the television and get on with your work."

Fourth, when you arrive at a dinner party instead of asking people "What line of work are you in?" you will ask "What have you learnt recently?" and in reply people will say things like "I learnt that social democracy is dead." You will ask how that can be and they will answer that they've just read John Gray's brilliant book Endgames. On the other side of the table you will overhear someone say that they never knew that Robert Maxwell once owned Tottenham and you will want to make that joke that you used to make back then which goes "Robert Maxwell's getting out of football altogether, he's buying Arsenal". You'll face that dilemma of wanting to be part of two simultaneous conversations which is a problem but beats the more common problem of not wanting to be part of either. You will return home, your head spinning with new inspiration and learning.

Fifth, you will visit your dry cleaner and this time, instead of exchanging pleasantries about the weather, he will ask you whether you have heard of the Czech novelist Ivan Klima and you - taken aback and guilty of stereotyping someone by the work they do - will say you haven't. And he will surprise you even more and tell you that Klima's latest novel is "the best Christian metaphysical novel I've ever read". The next time you're in Waterstone's you'll buy it and find it a challenging read. Your visits to the drycleaner will never be the same again. Your partner will return home with tales of the same drycleaner suggesting that Sartre has long since passed his sell-by date with which you will agree without knowing why.

It all sounds fanciful I know. May be one day in the distant future you think ... except that every one of these has happened to me already. There are poems and paintings by children on the 73 bus and it is a joy to see them there. Sometimes they have poems by adults who have returned to learning as well.

The BBC has launched its excellent GCSE Bitesize revision programme already and pupils preparing for this year's exams will certainly make use of it. Schools and parents will find the materials, all produced by experienced teachers and examiners, very helpful too. The BBC has been receiving thousands of enquiries. Other channels are gearing up in similar ways.

That dinner party really did happen or something very like it. Not everyone would find that particular conversation entirely riveting but the question that started it wins every time. When you first ask it there are those who say they can't think of anything but when you push them a bit they always come up with something. And then there's my dry cleaner who I now know is a deep thinker and turns out to be the most passionate advocate of lifelong learning I've ever met.

So I ask myself, if all the criteria I set have been met already, has the learning society already arrived? And my answer to this profound question is that it's well on the way - or it would have been if Chelsea had not just sacked Ruud Gullit.

Michael Barber is head of the Department of Education and Employment's standards and effectiveness unit

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