There is a powerful consensus among politicians of all parties that lifelong learning is a wonder drug which, on its own, will solve a wide range of educational and social ills. But this consensus is dangerous, deficient and diversionary.
The danger lies in employers being reinforced in their beliefs that the main obstacle to their success is the poor education of the workforce. It is deficient because, for education to be effective, it is dependent on complementary inputs, for example new investment, new technologies and industrial relations based on mutual, long-term commitments. Government initiatives such as the University for Industry and Individual Learning Accounts divert attention away from the structural barriers which prevent people learning; and they transfer responsibility for remaining employable on to individuals, who don't have the power to remove those barriers.
The consensus has also nothing to say about the sharpening polarisation in income and wealth within the UK and internationally. Policies designed to drive up standards (for example, school league tables) are unintentionally exacerbating this polarisation. Research on GCSE exam scores, for example, reveals a widening gap between those at the bottom and those achieving average or high grades. No one is arguing for equality of outcome but such extreme inequalities of outcome, repeated year after year, are the mark of a society which is becoming dangerously polarised.
The consensus also exhorts educational institutions to follow the model of British business. Curious. The Treasury's pre-budget report argued that the UK has a productivity gap with the USA of 40 per cent, and of 20 per cent with France and Germany. The report also claimed that British business has a long history of under investment in R and D and in physical and human capital. The exhortation to emulate business is therefore perverse, unless we in education are supposed to learn from comparative failure rather than from comparative success.
The Government is, however, right to insist that nothing less than a change in culture is needed in both education and business. Education is to be modernised through incessant legislation and a punitive form of regulation. In contrast, the Prime Minister argues that in relation to business "old-fashioned state intervention did not and cannot work". The Tories' voluntary framework for employers has been reconfirmed and the only legislation proposed will "give businesses in difficulties more chance to turn things around." Perhaps the Government would care to explain why policies acknowledged to have failed with business are still thought appropriate for education.
More of the consensus's weaknesses could be listed: it ignores the processes of teaching and learning, and some firms make profits by undercutting competitors rather than by "upskilling" their workers. But if the consensus is so poor, why is it so popular? It has the considerable advantage of legitimating increased expenditure on education. If, however, the policy fails to plug the productivity gap, then there may well be a backlash. The consensus also provides politicians with a pretext for action and converts deep-seated economic problems into short-lived educational projects on which their careers depend.
Lifelong learning is currently used to support "upskilling" as well as personal and social development. It's an instrument for change and a buffer against change. But it's also a form of social control. Throughout Europe, the state and employers are using lifelong learning to make workers more flexible and xemployable. Trade unionists are reluctantly accepting increased flexibility in return for training to improve employability. But some researchers within the Learning Society Programme consider such deals not "so much a trade-off as a trap", given the rate of projected redundancies.
Lifelong learning is being used to socialise workers to the escalating demands of employers, who use "employability" to make periods of unemployment more acceptable and "flexibility" to cover a variety of strategies which reduce costs but increase job insecurity. For employers, the ideal workers of the future will quickly internalise the need for employability, pay willingly for their own training, and flexibly offer commitment to each job, no matter its quality or duration. There's more chance of Scotland winning the World Cup.
That mythical beast, the "learning organisation", requires total commitment from all workers, who are often treated as totally expendable by footloose employers. This conflict at the heart of the concept of the "learning organisation" explains why so few, if any, organisations are worthy of the title.
In discussing various versions of a learning society, we're talking about the future shape of British society and how our systems of education, training and employment can help us to realise the type of society we want. But what is being developed in the UK is not a Learning Society, but a Flexible Society, fit for the global market. What are we to do?
(Continued next week).
Frank Coffield, professor of education at Newcastle University and director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Learning Society Programme, writes here in a personal capacity. Copies of the lecture this article is based on are available from him at the Dept. of Education, St Thomas' Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, at pound;3.50, cheques payable to University of Newcastle.