The nitty gritty of lifelong learning

5th December 1997 at 00:00
Tom Schuller explains how the national advisory group on continuing education wants to provoke a detailed national debate

"Many people never get beyond the earnest, yet banal, view that education is generally a 'good thing' or the assertion that there is a simple and self-evident link between educational attainment and prosperity, if only everyone would just put their mind to it. This is a welcome beginning, but we need more than assertions."

These words are from the first report of the National Advisory Group on Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning, published last week. The report from the group, on which I was the only Scottish member, is an input to Education Secretary David Blunkett's thinking as he prepares to publish a White Paper on lifelong learning early in the New Year. This will be followed by a separate White Paper for Scotland, on the same theme. That there is going to be public debate on lifelong learning is sure. But how do we get beyond the "earnest but banal"?

We set out a broad agenda, based on a number of key principles. We identify as a first, and most urgent task, that the Government should set out a strategic framework for the promotion of lifelong learning, and win wide support for it. This is a genuine and challenging task, not a piece of sermonising. We call for support from the top in order to translate the rhetoric of the few into the practice of the many. These are the first two principles - "coherence" and "equity" - and they will be music to the ears of those involved in the new Scottish Campaign for Learning.

We call for a commitment to widening and deepening participation and achievement in learning, and for increased emphasis on the home, community and the workplace as key places of learning. What this means is that more of the same will not do. "Variety and diversity" and "people before structures" are two more of our core principles.

Funding systems and institutional policies should change to reflect this. How much money goes into which sector to support what types of provision for what kinds of student? More fundamental still: what resources go into the formal education system, and what go into other means of supporting learning?

A fifth core principle is that "lifelong learning should engage the whole of Government". It cannot be left to the minister of education, with or without the minister of employment, to change the culture. Each department of state, from agriculture to culture, needs to play its part.

We call for "effective and inclusive partnerships", especially at local levels. This should not involve hundreds of new bodies. It does mean constructive sharing of information and ideas, together with choices on priorities which may be tough on some of the partners. Information technologies should allow this sharing to happen relatively effectively, at the same time enabling people to develop relevant skills.

Implicit in much of this - and perhaps deserving stronger articulation - is the notion of "balance". A real shift towards lifelong learning does not mean retaining more and more young people longer and longer in initial education. It means rethinking what opportunities for learning are available to which segments of the population at what points in their lives.

Let me take just one example to illustrate many of these principles. In our children's hearing system in Scotland, it is evident that parents become involved as panel members at a number of key points in their lives: when they first have children, or when their children reach the age when they might potentially appear before a panel hearing. For some, this provides just the motivation required to participate as panel members, and they receive excellent training to help them carry out a voluntarily assumed responsibility.

This is a real example of a learning society at work - delivering, incidentally, extraordinarily good value for money to the public purse. The training is based within universities, but draws on a range of tutors and is delivered flexibly all over the country. Participants are drawn from a wide variety of backgrounds, and learn from each other as much as from the tutors' input. The skills which they acquire not only help them to do their job as panel members, but spill over into workplace, family and community - exactly the areas the advisory group wished to highlight. We have set out our suggested principles, and an agenda which follows from them. David Blunkett has made it clear that he sees our task continuing throughout the lifetime of this Parliament, to give sustained impetus to the debate. There is every chance that in Scotland, too, we shall be able to move beyond the earnest and the banal.

Professor Tom Schuller is director of the Centre for Continuing Education, Edinburgh University.

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