Lifelong learning should mean life;FE Focus;Lifelong learning;Opinion

12th February 1999 at 00:00
We need to build a new social contract between the state, business, trade unions and education. The Government rightly insists on a change in culture in education and business, but it must take the lead in becoming a model of learning, and learn from teachers.

The Government should use research to shape policy, welcome constructive criticism, and value the innovatory potential of alternative visions. Can ministers stop proclaiming that their initiatives are instant successes before independent evaluation has even begun? Ministerial claims of instant success are as satisfying as instant coffee.

Education should also change its usual negotiating stance (the pre-emptive cringe) and make demands of its partners, such as a statutory framework to encourage employers to establish learning committees, learning agreements and annual reports on their investment in the learning of "all" staff. British financial markets need to invest in new businesses, not in Thailand but in Tyneside. The UK is becoming a branch plant economy, where the future of Rover is decided not in the Midlands but in Munich. Workers will need more protection than "the very minimum infrastructure" of fairness, proposed by the Prime Minister. Education must deepen its co-operation with business, provided that the great moral purposes of education aren't reduced to responding to the demands of business.

The Government is also operating with a debased notion of knowledge which is apparently to be created by universities and then "exploited" by industry. Socrates taught me that knowledge would set me free; Peter Mandelson tells me its modern function is to make employers rich.

We need to put some learning into the learning society. There's a hole in the heart of the government plans, which contain neither a theory of learning nor any recognition that a "social" theory is required. The latter would shift the focus from the concentration on "individuals" to the "social" arrangements which shape the identities of learners.

Teaching and learning remain for too many unproblematical processes of transmission and assimilation, but no learning society can be built on such foundations. Lifelong learning needs to be rescued from those pressure groups who pursue sectional interests. For example, some adult educators claim that "lifelong" refers only to the post-compulsory phase.

We need a new model of change in education. The Government wants to transform the teaching profession on which it depends to implement its reforms, but has squandered much goodwill, despite massive additional resources and a raft of welcome measures.

The re-appointment of Chris Woodhead as chief inspector revealed that the Prime Minister thinks teachers are part of the problem rather than the solution. If the pay proposals are rejected by a majority of teachers, will they be implemented? If so, the consultation exercise is a dishonest sham. Lbaour continues the error of acting "on" teachers, "for" them perhaps, but not "with" them.

The findings from the research prog-ramme confirm a discomfiting truth: the roots of educational disadvantage lie beyond education in the social structure and so beyond the remit of the Department for Education and Employment. Concerted action is needed to respond to the plight of millions of adults and children in poverty, slum estates and bad health. Education is "not" the best economic policy we have; it needs to be integrated with regional plans for industry and a well-resourced, anti-poverty campaign.

There remains a powerful role for education to play. But instead of providing extra help to the casualties of the system, we need to "mainstream" equality - to integrate equal opportunities into all structures and systems.

David Blunkett could replace the divisive binary line between FE and HE with a tertiary system, celebrating diversity. Students would not only move from FE to HE but vice versa for postgraduate vocational training. Running prestigious courses for professionals would raise the status of FE colleges and the University for Industry. Removing unjustifiable inequalities and structural barriers (e.g. the indefensible differential in the funding of part-time and full-time students) means redistributing income and wealth via increased taxation.

I take it from his recent remarks that Trade and Industry Secretary Stephen Byers will not be employing the tactic he used in education of "naming, blaming and shaming" those firms which fail to increase productivity.

Finally, what skills are required for success in the next century? The official list - information technology, communication skills, teamwork - will not serve you well. I recommend instead love, work, music, humour, friends, doubt, hope and good red wine.

Frank Coffield, professor of education at Newcastle University and director of the Economic and Social Research Council's Learning Society Programme, writes here in a personal capacity. Copies of the lecture this article is based on are available from him at the Dept. of Education, St Thomas' Street, Newcastle upon Tyne NE1 7RU, at pound;3.50, cheques payable to University of Newcastle.

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