International man of scrutiny

11th January 2008 at 00:00
A new probe into adult learning in England could have lessons for all parts of the UK, its director believes. Joseph Lee reports.

The former Scots academic (and sometime TESS contributor) who has been asked to head an inquiry into adult education south of the border has accused governments worldwide of 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 countries were discussing the challenges of ageing populations and globalisation, but few were 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. Few are committed to meeting these challenges at a strategic level."

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

Mr Schuller, who examines education systems across the world, said he wanted the inquiry to take a wide view of possible models. "We want a broad vision - 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 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 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, who has also worked at Glasgow and Edinburgh universities, said he had experienced the same conflicts as colleges between what adults want to learn and what governments want to fund: "The UK has been excessively target-oriented and I think the Government acknowledges that."

But he 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 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 realised this attitude wasn't good enough."

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