Labour's lifelong betrayal

27th August 2004 at 01:00
Taking the fun out of learning is no way to encourage adults to get involved, says a new damning critique of policy William Lewis applauds it

LEARNING FOR LIFE:THE FOUNDATIONS FOR LIFELONG LEARNING David H Hargreaves The Policy Press,ISBN 1-86134-597-6, pound;14.99

Six years on from the astonishing, thirst-quenching prose of David Blunkett's The learning age: a renaissance for a new Britain, David Hargreaves pauses briefly to consider the failure to establish a "coherent, engaging, accessible culture of lifelong learning".

Learning for life, though, is not just a lament: it provides a vivid critique of school-based education which still fails to provide a secure foundation for lifelong learning.

It's a short book - just 114 pages - but dense in ideas. The critique ranges across the curriculum, assessment and teaching, through to leadership and even the physical shape of schools.

Hargreaves carefully dissects a stifling system in which teachers and learners are trapped in the "three Ts of targets, tests and (league) tables". In this, learning has becomes devoid of pleasure and reduced to a series of tasks to be completed with a minimum of effort or unpleasantness.

Hargreaves also lays out his clear and coherent framework for lifelong, adult learning. His thesis is that the foundations of lifelong learning will not be laid through that grinding disharmony which breeds disaffection; instead we should recognise that learning is one of life's great pleasures, that most people are very good at it and that a good education system actually enhances our ability to learn.

In support of this, Hargreaves develops a conceptual framework for work-based learning. Work-based learning is seen as more "natural" than the classroom. It takes place in authentic settings. Learning is spontaneous and progressive. Problems to be solved are real ones. Learners participate actively and so extend current competences or gain new ones. Learners have real responsibilities and make decisions with important consequences for themselves, for their employers and for other people. Working and learning, arguably living and learning, then become indivisible. The pegagogic model is interesting too, and draws from earlier models of learning before the relatively recent creation of schools and professional teachers.

Apprentices learn, not from teachers, but from adult role-models: the excellent, expert, non-professional teachers who impart skills and knowledge and from whom they learn that learning is a natural, important and enjoyable part of their lives. In this way, "doing an apprenticeship" is sharply contrasted with "doing school".

My colleagues who inspect work-based learning will smile at this joyously naive model; yet if it does not reflect reality that is because of failures in implementation, not failures of Hargreaves' imagination. It's too easy to contrast the bright, confident young people I've met on work-based learning inspections against bored, disaffected young people in classrooms - it's not that simple.

Work-based learning will also fail if providers neglect to properly support young people leaving them bored and uncomprehending. Nevertheless, particularly at this post-Tomlinson moment, Hargreaves's case that the foundations of lifelong learning are natural not artificial is compelling.

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