Never mind the qualification - check the quality

9th February 2001 at 00:00
Most people agree that those who have rejected formal education and training must be attracted back into learning.

Yet it seems that the UK has a "sticking-plaster" approach where repeated government initiatives try to compensate for the way that mainstream education seems to reject and de-motivate large numbers of those who go through it.

Although lifelong learning is widely seen as a good thing, it is not clear what we really mean by it. In the new learning skills sector, it seems to be synonymous with more people gaining qualifications to meet national government targets for learning.

A whole raft of technical solutions accompany these aims, such as removing barriers to participation; offering better guidance services; giving individuals financial incentives; making certification more accessible; encouraging providers to offer courses in the community, workplaces and on-line; and providing mentors for those who seem disaffected by formal education.

Despite these efforts, large numbers of people reject formal learning. The Training Standards Council inspectors reported recently that only one in 10 participants in the New Deal initiative completes their education and training courses. And a quarter of 17-year-olds drop out after a year of further education.

Although institutions respond by trying to improve the match between people and courses, poor motivation may suggest a deep-seated cultural antipathy. Recent research at the University of Cardiff shows that many adults, including employers, see formal learning either as something to be avoided at all costs, or to be endured if there is a marketable pay-off at the end, such as a "good" qualification or obvious relevance to pressing job demands.

And age, gender, where people live, family and community attitudes, and experience of school all affect whether people are motivated by external rewards or intrinsic enjoyment.

Another study at King's College, London, shows that 16-year-olds desire for education or training is both precarious and fluctuating, and affected deeply by social class, perceptions of prospects in local job markets and past educational experiences.

Whatever the Government might say about encouraging a commitment to lerning for the sake of one's employers or colleagues, or for the sake of economic prosperity and the good of society, this social form of motivation is not widespread. Tendencies towards instrumental motivation are compounded by the requirement for ever-higher levels of qualification to get jobs.

This makes many workers, and their employers, want minimum effort for qualifications associated with training. They are also sceptical of their status and image. Research at the Institute of Education in London shows that most adults who do want qualifications want general academic ones.

It is worth considering a finding from a project in the North-east which shows that growing numbers of young people take part in a series of schemes and courses and still don't get jobs. If their efforts don't pay off, no wonder antipathy takes root. If the new learning mentors proposed by the Connexions careers initiative are to succeed, some understanding of these socio-economic dimensions to motivation is essential. Setting targets for more qualifications will not resolve these dilemmas, and technical changes to motivate people will have a limited impact.

Should achievement of qualifications be seen differently for young people than for adults? We also suggest a need to look more closely at patterns of work-based learning and to re-think the idea that meeting targets for more qualifications signifies more competent workers. Knowing more about formal and informal learning in public and commercial organisations might offer better insights into individuals' motivation and into the effects of social motivation on workplace learning.

Technical solutions, new funding and inspection arrangements, and mentors for the supposedly "disaffected" can only be a small solution. Recent research can show ways out of the motivational mire that current policy may inadvertently reinforce.

Kathryn Ecclestone is a lecturer in post-compulsory education at the University of Newcastle and visiting research fellow at the City amp; Guilds of London Institute. For contact details of research studies addressing issues raised in this article, contact Kathryn Ecclestone at City amp; Guilds, co Future 100, 1 Giltspur Street, London EC1A 9DD

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