Epitaph for the Big L

5th September 2003 at 01:00
After 31 confused years of being all thing to all people, sickly Lifelong Learning has finally passed away

After a protracted illness, Lifelong Learning (known as "Big L" to her friends and "Triple L" to bartenders) has died suddenly, aged 31.

She had the unique distinction of starting and ending her life at an international conference. In Paris in 1972, her father Edgar Faure announced her arrival and told the audience that her mother ('Old Red' or Recurrent Education) had died tragically during the birth. (Ugly rumours about other possible fathers from Sweden and the US still circulate.) Now, at another international conference, Big L suffered a fatal attack and died despite last minute attempts to save her by the spin doctors. Some of them claim her last words were: "Can the dying process be formally accredited in a terminal assessment?" Others claim she said: "I wish I'd spent more time meeting my targets."

A post-mortem revealed gaping holes in her policy and serious weaknesses in her practice. She'd been warned for years but she thought she was immortal, just like her Mum. A brain scan was performed but they found nothing there, a condition known to the medical profession as Empty Repetitive Rhetoric Syndrome. Now that it's been labelled, experts are finding ERRS everywhere.

There'll be no funeral service as the family are concerned that no-one will turn up in case they're told for the umpteenth time that they have to change their career three times, their job seven times, and their underwear every day. Instead, please send donations to Initiatives 'R' Us (the new Strategy Unit at the DfES), which is widely tipped to get Big L's job. And please remember in your prayers all those with "lifelong learning" in their job title.

Commentators saw 1996 as the high point of her life, when the European Commission dedicated a year to her; since then she's produced "an infinity of papers and infinitesimal progress", as one critic put it. A bit harsh, don't you think? Others argued that she failed to change any structures but, by Jove, she could talk. The only trouble was it was always the same speech, without any theory or empirical data.

She also promised too much. One minute she claimed she could increase national productivity all on her own and even found some economists daft enough to agree with her. The next minute she boasted she could reduce crime and increase social cohesion. She began to have weird fantasies. She thought she was a magic bullet or the Greek goddess Panacea. She saw herself as the universal repository of other people's dreams: "universal suppository", some whispered unkindly. But they're part of the awkward squad who never know what's good for them.

She was all things to all people. The politicians loved her because in their hands she was so flexible, the practitioners loved her because they could do anything they liked in her name, and the researchers loved her because they made money recording her every twist and turn.

She got depressed because no-one loved her for her own sake. She tried to get people to love her by promising them a decent job, but there weren't enough to go round. Her friends said she was fun to be with, but could be hard going if taken seriously. Those economists claimed to love her but they were only after one thing: a return on their investment. She felt used. It broke her heart.

Some praised her for promising to give everyone individual attention. But people soon saw through this empty boast - heavens, there were 58 million of them and only one of her. She reassured them: "The computer will devise an individualised learning plan for you". "Individual attention from a machine? Stuff that for a game of soldiers," they retorted.

She tried to get teachers on side but kept telling them what to do, how to do it and that they'd been doing it wrong for years. She was genuinely surprised when they felt insulted. One of her advisers, who didn't know his Adult from his Education, told her teachers couldn't be trusted: "They're incapable of change. They've sold their souls to their unions". Oddly, he was her expert on getting professionals to change.

She turned to senior managers: "Become lifelong learners! Challenge conventional wisdoms! Criticise my policies!" They were bewildered:" Lifelong learning for everyone doesn't mean us as well, does it?" they asked. "Oh, yes," she chided, "it applies to me too. We need to create a learning system..."

"Now I've done it" she thought, "My big mouth will be the death of me." And it was.

The managers had been to leadership college to learn to read between the lines. They knew that what she meant in practice was: "Put the stick about.

Use Big L as a tool to keep employees on their toes. I don't want feedback: my policies are non-negotiable. I've hired big guns from the universities to tell me what to do."

But some of the hired guns were notorious for shooting blanks or themselves in the foot; for example one asked: "Are you going to set up a Followers'

College?" Cheeky young upstart.

The space in Big L's brain between her rhetoric and her reality began to widen and precipitated the final seizure. The spin doctors operated but the gap had grown to royal proportions, so they named her new condition Hiatus Regius Hypocriticus, or HRH for short. She loved the title but it killed her.

Her epitaph reads: "Here Lies Big L. Reflective Impulsive Practitioner (RIP). Not Dead - Just Restructuring."

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