The learning revolution is the greatest force for social change since the steam engine - but it waits for no one, warns Bill Lucas
Something extraordinary is happening. We are beginning to talk about learning. Suddenly we want to know why it is important to society, what it looks like and where we can find some of it. As David Blunkett put it in last year's White Paper, Excellence in Schools, "learning can unlock the treasure that lies within us all".
This is a potentially liberating shift of emphasis, if we can only see it through. But at the moment, it's a bit like living in the early days of steam power in the last great social upheaval, the industrial revolution. Now, as then, there are some who are resistant to change, preferring to walk in front of the learning train with a red flag.
Others accept that the rapid development of communications technology and the emergence of a global market make a revolution in learning inevitable. But some of this group, like the owners of the old Victorian railway companies, want to be sure that each "learning company" has its own gauge and none can interconnect. Now, as then, these individuals may make money for themselves in the short term, but in the end find themselves out of business for failing to act as part of a team.
The debate about learning and, of course, teaching, is the most important debate that we could be having today. For it is those who do not have the capacity to learn who will be the new disadvantaged of the 21st century.
Learning has a special role. It is a positive force. It is the glue which binds us together. If we have the capacity to learn, we can adapt and become flexible, responsive and tolerant. In the re-invention of Britain that is taking place under New Labour, we need to apply some radical thinking to the new learning revolution.
The red flag carriers do not want a learning train; they would prefer a faster horse. They talk of adapting existing models of education rather than looking for new ones. The new learning millionaires are lobbying the education task forces for their particular size of gauge rather than for an integrated transport system.
It is, of course, the individual traveller and the individual learner who have many of the answers, alongside the "drivers and conductors" - the many teachers and lecturers who help learners to realise their potential. People loved travelling by railway. It was fast, effective and fun. People love learning. People love teachers who understand their needs. When learning is effective, it can transform our lives, moving us on from one place to another, unlocking our hidden treasures. It can mean that someone like Lilian Lister, a mother of two in Leeds, can have the confidence to recognise her abilities as a teacher of her own children after taking part in a family literacy project based at All Saints primary.
It was in recognition of this last point that the Campaign for Learning was set up, initially as a project at the Royal Society of Arts, and now as an independent organisation. The campaign will seek to whet the appetites of individuals by showing the power of learning. A Gallup poll for North Yorkshire Training and Enterprise Council recently suggested that learning brings people more happiness than having sex, playing or watching sport or doing the national lottery. Our own recent MORI poll is less conclusive. Half of us say we would like to take part in some kind of learning activity, but only a third of us say we actually think we will. This points to a large gap between aspiration and reality. How would it be if we could bridge that gap? Not possible, I hear you say.
But it is. Look what has happened in the field of the environment. Who would have thought that a real concern for the environment could have been created through co-ordinated campaigning?
The Campaign for Learning has a broad base of support, including the Government, many influential companies such as Centrica (the retail arm of the former British Gas), the EMI group, Esso, the Post Office, Nat West, Rover, Tate and Lyle, Sainsbury and Unilever, universities, colleges and schools, voluntary-sector organisations such as the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education and the Training and Enterprise Councils' national council, and many influential people, including Lord Puttnam, Helena Kennedy and John Monks.
Powerful as this breadth of interest is, if the campaign is to be a success it will have to communicate effectively with ordinary individuals about the importance of learning. Most adults are instinctively likely to be supportive. According to the campaign's MORI poll, 81 per cent agree that learning new things is a valuable aspect of their life. But the campaign will be helping to create a dynamic culture in which learning is actively sought. We want people to demand learning in the same way as they expected to own first a car, then a television and now a mobile phone. Teachers and lecturers have a supremely important role to play. At a time when there is an ever-increasing emphasis on measuring outputs, we need the same energy applied to education.
Let me look at just two areas of concern. Take parenting, for example. We know that the support of parents for their children's learning is crucially important. We even know that doing homework in isolation in a bedroom may not be the best way for young people to learn. As Jesse Jackson, the American Democrat, put it, "No parent is too poor to turn their television set off and labour alongside their child each evening."
We are well aware that parents need to be very involved in their children's schools. We need to find ways of reintroducing a widespread culture of family learning and of supporting parents so that they can be part of their children's education.
A real understanding of the psychology of teaching and learning, too, is important. Everyone learns in different styles, yet we continue to assume that there is a dominant hegemony dictated by the subject rather than by the learner's needs.
The most powerfully unhelpful factor in any campaign for learning will be the continuing existence of significant numbers of people for whom schooldays are not happy ones. According to the campaign's MORI poll, 18 per cent of adults and 17 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds did not or do not enjoy school. If we are to change this we will need to show a greater understanding of the psychology of learners.
Here, in brief, are just three of the things the campaign will be doing in 1998. Our first challenge is to put learning in all of our faces. We will do this by understanding as much as possible about how, why and where we learn and what the barriers are to our doing so. In the autumn we will be launching a new national day to celebrate the achievements of learners and teachers.
Second, we will be creating a wholly new and accessible language to communication the benefits of learning to individuals. It will be rich in imagery of success. It will use popular role models to speak up for learning. It will value teachers and all those who work to unlock individual talent.
Third, we will be the catalyst for a continuing debate about learning and will be launching a new forum for this discussion. Our definition of learning, recently commended in the Fryer Report, which laid the foundations for the Government policy on lifelong learning, is inclusive and broad and recognises its potential for all of us.
If we really want to welcome the lifelong learning train, we will need to aspire to an integrated system, one which can include parents and adopt radically different learning styles. We will need to overcome the culture of criticism and blame and build on the passion and idealism which still lurks in teachers, lecturers, parents and the many other organisations looking to help us learn. Will you join us?
Bill Lucas is the chief executive of the national Campaign for Learning, an independent charity seeking to create an appetite for learning in every individual. You can write to him at 8 John Adam Street, London WC2N 6EZ.