Learning for ever

26th April 1996 at 01:00
In the days when our enemy was France we had to sharpen our steel. Now that we are fighting on the economic battlefield against the Pacific Rim countries we have to hone our skills. That is what the Campaign for Learning (page 6) is primarily about. As recently as 1951-55 Britain produced more than 20 per cent of the world's manufactured goods.

Thirty years later that figure had fallen to 5 per cent. If you also consider that six million British adults have difficulty reading and writing, that a quarter of 19-year-olds are "functionally illiterate" and that our craft and technician training compares badly with countries such as Germany it confirms that we have a serious problem. Thankfully, all the main political parties now recognise this, albeit belatedly, and have drawn up training policies to arrest our slide.

Some big companies haven't bothered to wait for political initiatives, however. Unipart has established its own "university" and Ford offers each of its workers up to Pounds 200 worth of learning each year. But Ford also understands something that many other companies are beginning to grasp - that education does not have to have a narrow vocational focus to benefit both the employer and the individual. Employees who go on dry-stone walling courses return to the assembly-line happier, more confident, and better workers, because the learning has been as important as the subject.

Gillian Shephard has acknowledged this and made appropriate noises about the social, cultural and quality-of-life benefits of non-vocational education. The Government has never, however, shown any real financial commitment to non-vocational courses and the consultation document on lifelong learning that it issued last December was very timid. It has looked the other way when local authorities have slashed adult education to meet cuts targets, and there have been no protests from Westminster about either the 10 per cent increase in course fees that institutions asked for last year or the recent OFSTED finding that there is a huge variation in the quality and availability of adult education classes.

The Campaign for Learning's chairman, Sir Christopher Ball, is right to say that individuals must take responsibility for their own learning and he has set an impressive example by attempting Japanese, word-processing and waterskiing. But it is unlikely that many people will be that ambitious (or masochistic) without a little help from Mrs Shephard.

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