International man of scrutiny

4th January 2008 at 00:00

World expert arrives in search of a `broader vision' for adult education than either Foster or Leitch.

The head of a new inquiry into adult education has accused governments worldwide of merely paying lip service to lifelong learning.

Tom Schuller, head of the international education think tank at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development in Paris, said all countries were discussing the challenges of ageing populations and globalisation, but very few were really committed to improving adult education to solve these problems.

He was speaking after his appointment as director of the review of adult education commissioned by Niace, the British adult education organisation. His inquiry is intended to provide an alternative to the Leitch review, which was criticised by some for an overly narrow focus on qualifications.

"Lifelong learning and adult education is something every country says it believes in, but when you test the results it's often rather less convincing," he said.

"Several countries have strategies in some areas, but I wouldn't say any one is the nirvana of lifelong learning. Very few are really committed to lifelong learning to meet these challenges at a strategic level."

The new inquiry has been commissioned in the wake of the loss of about 1.4 million adult students, following the Government's shift in focus to qualifications equivalent to five good GCSEs.

Mr Schuller, who as head of the Centre of Educational Research and Innovation at the OECD examines education systems across the world, said he wanted the inquiry to take a wide view of possible models for adult education.

"We want a broad vision to come out of this review - one that doesn't represent sectional interests, that is exciting and that will have some new ideas. It will link lifelong learning with other areas such as health, as well as the economy etc," he said.

"We want to avoid the simplistic notion that you drive up skills and economic performance just falls into place. We need to look at how skills are used as well as acquired."

Building social networks was also important, he said. "You can have all the skills you want, but if you're not part of networks you can't find a way of applying them."

He acknowledged that in the wake of two reviews of further education and skills - by Sir Andrew Foster and Lord Leitch - there was no guarantee that this inquiry would get ministers' attention.

Mr Schuller, former dean of the faculty of continuing education at Birkbeck, University of London, said he had experienced the same conflicts as colleges between what adults want to learn and what governments want to fund.

"A lot of adults we wanted to bring back into education wouldn't be interested if they were asked to sign up for certification," he said. "There is a tension between accountability and trust locally.

"Some mechanisms for accountability go too far. The UK has been excessively target-oriented and I think the Government acknowledges that, actually."

But Mr Schuller said the experience of other countries showed it was possible to go too far the other way. In Denmark, colleges had near total autonomy and high investment, but had failed to perform well in international comparisons.

"They got a real shock when the results came out," he said. "They thought, `We're a Scandinavian country, investing a lot in education' - but they came out below average. They suddenly realised this attitude wasn't good enough."

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