Lessons from a life on the road;Books

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
Alan Tuckett and Patrick Ainley review the latest thinking on lifelong education released in a clutch of new publications

MAELER'S REGARD, Mike Newman, Stewart Victor Publishing, Sydney, Australia, $(Aus)39 (pound;15)

MAKING LIFELONG LEARNING WORK: Learning Cities for a Learning Century, Norman Longworth, Kogan Page, London, pound;19.99

LIFELONG LEARNING: RIDING THE TIGER, Jim Smith and Andrea Spurling, Cassell, London, pound;18.99

ONE OF the finest reads this year has been Mike Newman's Maeler's Regard, a lyrical reminder of the power of adult learning when linked with social commitment.

Newman ranges over 30 years' experience in three continents to tell stories of how learning makes a difference in the struggle of ordinary people making sense of their lives. More than that, he has the impressive knack of moving lightly from raconteur to theorist, sketching lightly and accessibly, major analyses of learning and social change. From his first seminal pamphlet, Adult Education and Community Action, published by Writers and Readers in the early 1970s, and his account of the Inner London Education Authority's adult service, Poor Cousin, he has mapped changing fashions in the field. Everything comes into focus - his own

journey back to Australia, and from community activist to union educator and distinguished academic. But above all, he tells stories that resonate long after the book has been put down. It is no accident that two of his last three books have won the Cyril Houle international prize for an outstanding contribution to work in this field. Do read it - while many of the struggles described come from Australia or South Africa, they have a great deal to contribute to current debates on the empowerment of socially-excluded groups in the UK.

By contrast, Norman Longworth's Making Lifelong Learning Work was hard work. His frame of reference is global - but his focus uncertain, a little like those DIY instruction manuals written for someone more, or perhaps less, skilled than oneself. I don't want to be unkind, and his enthusiasm for learning cities is infectious, even if the evidence shows that the idea is more powerful than the actual practice. But the pace exhausts - lists, sound-bite paragraphs and swirling circles bespatter the text. In contrast to Mike Newman, Longworth lacks easily-told stories. As a result, I picked it up and put it down, and picked it up again.

I enjoyed Lifelong Learning - Riding the Tiger more. But again I longed for the authors to kick off with some powerful illustration of their central themes. As it was, the book begins with a clear, if well-trodden, resume of the causes and effects of Britain's learning divide.

Where it scores is in the fact that it is a book about lifelong learning, connecting schooling with the learning that comes before and after. The evidence cited as examples of proof is

eclectic, from the newly-fashionable interest in the potential of developments in brain sciences, to group-learning theory, to careful exploration of the economics and ethics of a learning society. But I found myself puzzled about its point of view.

If Newman is quite clearly alongside learners in their struggle to squeeze the right to learn out of a reluctant system, and Longworth is attracted to the alliance of business and the state in transforming urban environments for learning, Jim Smith and Andrea Spurling are more complex. They have the Government in their sights. You can imagine a long, carefully-prepared seminar, in which shallow bureaucrats are left no space to disagree.

The tone is cool, but the engagement passionate. They start from a very different place from Newman, but agree that group-learning and collective experience have a vitality and importance which is not properly reflected in current policy - despite David Blunkett's clear encouragement.

However, their plans for change involve wholehearted investment in individuals. Their detailed plans for change take in, along the way, a newly-titled secretary of state (for lifelong learning and employment), a transformed UK lifelong learning advisory group, a UK-wide lifelong learning partnership, and a new select committee. Their most detailed proposal concerns an individual lifelong learning account (ILLA) - with saving, borrowing and credit functions, under the control of the learner. The ILLA is designed to overcome the twin weaknesses of financing in Britain (which they see as chronic state under-investment) and the tendency for available money to be distributed unevenly, and to privilege the privileged.

They conclude there is only one ride available: lifelong learning. I did find myself admiring the clarity of their questions more than the detail of their proposed answers.

Alan Tuckett is director of the National Institute of Adult and Continuing


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