TO COVENTRY for a conference on participation, run by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education and the Government. The event was to present findings from the institute's 1999 participation survey, and to mark the publication of Pathways in Adult Learning, the follow-up to the 1997 national adult learning surveys.
Taken together, the surveys confirm that about a quarter of the population say they have done no learning since school, and that another third may have done some learning, but cannot remember it without extended prompting - hardly the best platform for the knowledge society.
The danger with snapshots, however, is that they fail to capture dynamic change. The most encouraging finding, for me, of the Pathways to Learning study is that 28 per cent of the people who defined themselves as non-learners in 1997 said they had done some learning when re-interviewed 18 months later. Taking a four-and-a-half year period, 81 per cent of those surveyed reported learning episodes. This suggests that the number completely excluded from access to learning is smaller than we thought.
On the other hand, the survey showed how quickly the learning habit can be lost. People were asked about their learning plans. Two in three who reported learning in the 1997 survey, and by the follow-up survey, had learning plans. Yet 70 per cent of those who had done some learning in the 1997 survey, but nothing since, said they were unlikely to return.
Clearly, where the learning habit is so fragile, the participation target adopted by the Government is a challenging one.
At the conference, Naomi Sargant complicated matters further by observing that, while 20 years ago more than 20 per cent of learners said they were learning sports or keep-fit, that number was now negligible. The same pattern was apparent in DIY. Yet the boom in the leisure industry, and in home-improvement retailing, suggests that people no longer think of keep-fit and upholstery as "learning".
John Field and Tom Schuller's work for the Economic and Social Research Council on the patterns of participation in Scotland and Northern Ireland also suggest that different people take different views about what counts as learning. A major study in south Wales by Gareth Rees and his colleagues finds that there is less learning going on now than in the heyday of the coalfields.
What does all this suggest we should do to create a learning society in which everyone feels they have a stake? In a characteristically iconoclastic contribution to the conference, John Field drew attention to one answer - from the Dutch ministry of education, culture and science: "A chain is only as strong as its weakest link ... You have to learn to take care of yourself and, therefore, you must want to acquire the knowledge and skills to do that. Those who do not take part will be reminded of their responsibilities."
There are echoes of similar thinking in the New Deal programmes. Yet as John Field suggested, taking a horse to water does not automatically lead to drinking. Bad experiences of a first return to learning can put you off for good. A study in the 1980s found that if the status of student is less attractive than that of worker, it does at least give you a context for engaging with a wider society.
One lesson was clear. The workplace is a key site for engaging previously excluded groups. The Government makes that more possible, at least, in linking learning for community and economic development in the work of the new Learning and Skills Councils.
Alan Tuckett is the director of the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education