Peter Scott on the kind of learning needed for a successful economy.
The urgent theme of this book is that learning pays - but not any old academic learning. The learning that pays is NVQed, or denominated in competences and outcomes rather than its knowledge content; TECified, because it is at least as likely to be delivered through the workplace or by independent study as schools, colleges and universities, and TQMed or IIPed to ensure customer-responsive delivery.
Or, rather, the learning that should pay, because most real-world market indicators suggest that the learning that currently pays is knowledge rather than skills-driven and provided by traditional institutions rich in cultural capital. (Incidentally not a concept discussed in this book, although of crucial significance in understanding the sinuous links between economic advancement and individual achievement.) Instead of cultural capital, this book concentrates on human capital. The argument that threads its way through most of the contributions is that the twin struggles to cure the "British disease", comparative economic under-performance, and to establish if not a classless society at any rate an opportunity society uninhibited by the old constraints of class, common ground for both John Major and Tony Blair, can both be powerfully assisted by what they call the "learning revolution" - NVQs, TECs and the rest. Investing in people, literally, is investing in Britain.
The starting point is that Britain is an under-skilled country, which is undoubtedly true if levels of formal educational achievement are the dominant measure. This under-skilling has two principal causes. The first is the failure of the educational system to give proper weight, and respect, to vocational training. In the dock are generations of liberal educators. The second is an over-reliance in education and training on public policy, and public institutions, at the expense of market approaches, and the private sector.
Not all the contributors place equal emphasis on these factors. The book's argument has been woven from two main strands, the Royal Society of Arts' project on post-compulsory education and training headed by Sir Christopher Ball and the Confederation or British Industry's more active engagement with education and training which dates from the publication of Towards a Skills Revolution in 1989 and has been reinforced by the enthusiasm of its director-general Howard Davies. Broadly those contributors representing the RSA strand emphasise the first, the failings of liberalacademic education, while those from the CBI strand emphasise the second, public-sectorism.
To sustain its polemical effect Bringing Learning to Life is often forced to caricature those it holds responsible for educational and, more broadly economic and national failure. The result is a book which feels as if it had been written from the "outside" by non-educators, despite the fact most of its contributors spent many years inside the system - David Bradshaw, the editor and a long-time college principal, Naomi Sargent an Open University pioneer, Anne Jones a distinguished head and, of course, Christopher Ball himself. The effect can be strange. Further education colleges become part of the solution rather than part of the problem only when they are incorporated. A century of achievement in technical education is ignored. The TECs, which even many of those who support greater employer involvement do not regard as totally successful, are treated uncritically. Their lack of democratic accountability and, in a few cases, managerial competence are glossed over. A them-and-us perspective is imposed on a complex education and training environment.
A particular concern is the theoretical underpinning of the book. It offers accounts of how people learn and how learning organisations are built which in the business school may pass as profound but in the context of educational ideas and research are merely banal. Most are based on American literature. Their intellectual ethos is one of mechanistic managerialism rather than a humane professionalism.
Bringing Learning to Life is an engaging polemic, right in many of its detailed prescriptions but wrong in its one-sided diagnosis. What is needed is not to remake public education in the mould of the private sector. The latter has a poor record of long-sighted support for training. The bulk of investment, and innovation, in vocational education has always come from schools and colleges. What is needed is a genuine partnership between all those with a stake in re-skilling Britain - Government (local as well as national or quangoid), industry (both sides) and institutions (teachers and managers).
Peter Scott is professor of education and director of the Centre for Policy Studies in Education, University of Leeds.