Editorial: Why captains of industry need evening classes

5th December 2014 at 00:00

I've always wanted to learn basic bike maintenance. I reckon I can probably approach my other interests with a half-baked autodidactic attitude, thanks to a passable academic education, but not this one. I have literally no idea where to start.

So as I set about this column I must declare a vested interest: I would be very chuffed if someone gave me a cheque and told me I could spend it on whatever I wanted at the local college. I'd be on Amazon ordering up overalls quicker than you can say Sturmey-Archer.

But this is not the only reason I want you to read Alan Tuckett's wonderful paean to adult education, to learning for learning's sake and to the Ford Motor Company.

I urge you to read his piece because it is a timely reminder, as we struggle towards the end of the Longest Term, of what this crazy business is all about. Lest we forget, it's the brilliance of education - and how everyone benefits if everyone is learning. Nothing else comes close.

To illustrate this point, Alan tells us about a wonderful scheme that Ford has run in the UK since the late Eighties. This profit-making behemoth sets aside a budget (historically amounting to some 0.3 per cent of its wage bill) to pay for employees to engage in learning for its own sake.

The rules of this independently administered fund actually specify that it will only pay for courses that are not work-related. Learn Italian? You're on. Want to train to be a publican? Here's the cash. Even golf lessons have been bankrolled. But if you want to learn how to increase the efficiency of factory lines, management has to open its wallet.

The indirect benefits of this enlightened approach, Ford's top people have learned, include improved productivity, reduced absenteeism, significantly lower workforce agitation and increased interest in professional training. Most importantly, the key conclusion they have drawn is that "learning leaks".

What a fantastically understated description of a hugely important idea.

This concept, despite being under threat in this time of student fees and key performance indicators, is still held by many in the dreaming spires of higher education to be a truth in and of itself. If you develop a passion for a subject or an area of study and are given the academic and financial freedom to pursue it, both you and wider society will see huge secondary benefits further down the line. In other words, learning ancient Greek will help you to become a Goldman Sachs billionaire or chief executive of an international charity.

But too often, staring down the barrel of an Ofsted inspection, league tables, endless accountability measures and business lobbyists banging on about "employability", educationalists and school and college leaders allow themselves to lose sight of the importance of learning for learning's sake. And, perhaps even more importantly, learning to love learning.

What a tremendous defence this argument is, too, of that most maligned of sectors, adult education - which will no doubt have suffered in some way at the hands of the chancellor's Autumn Statement this week.

No longer should we sneer at evening classes for those who want to learn holiday Spanish. Or, for that matter, the art of dismantling a derailleur gear.



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