In search of a policy on lifelong learning

2nd October 1998 at 01:00
"Somewhere along the line education has ceased to capture the imagination of a large part of the Scottish population." These words are from the opening paragraph of Donald Dewar's introduction to Opportunity Scotland, the long-awaited Green Paper on lifelong learning. The Secretary of State's acknowledgement that there is a challenge is welcome. How does the paper measure up?

It deserves one cheer for having assembled material for a proper debate on lifelong learning. The existing activities described are valuable, and some of the intended ones potentially very exciting, even if we have heard of them before.

On the other hand, although the paper describes itself as Green it is not formatted to promote public discussion. There is an absence of strategic overview. Most important of all, there is real doubt as to whether its general direction will change the front-loaded, youth-oriented nature of our system.

The paper's 10-point plan is a substantial agenda. It is strongest on technology and on education and training for younger people, weakest on social issues - older adults get barely a mention. If it is fully implemented it would mark a considerable expansion of learning opportunities; whether it would add up to a system of lifelong learning is another matter.

The challenge to which Mr Dewar refers certainly exists. The latest report from the Advisory Scottish Council for Education and Training Targets - latest and last, given the absorption of its functions into the Scottish Office - makes fairly sombre reading. While achievements at foundation level have risen, progress in the workforce is frankly acknowledged as poor. More achievement by young people, less by adults.

On the wider social front, the OECD literacy study contains some sharp warnings about the competence level of significant proportions of the adult population. My own research for the Economic and Social Research Council's Learning Society research programme raises further questions about how sound a foundation for future learning is laid by initial education in Scotland.

A paper that deals with a topic as broad as lifelong learning faces a major difficulty: how to make the whole more than the sum of the parts. We have to distinguish different audiences for the paper. Professional educators may have one set of views (not necessarily unanimous), business people another. But many people will have no preformed views at all.

The paper usefully brings together in the same discussion a whole range of activities and types of provision, from higher education to community development, and from the National Grid for Learning to guidance and youth work. Just skimming this range should help those unfamiliar with the field to get some idea of its scope, and the breadth of possible future policies.

The paper correctly includes schooling, emphasising that lifelong learning is not just about post-compulsory education and training. (In an interesting departure from chronological age as a sequence, the section on schools comes after that on adults.) It is right that Higher Still figures in the 10-point action plan, as a key articulation between school and post-school education.

But there is a major weakness: the paper's lack of strategic character. A list of initiatives is no substitute for analysis of major educational, economic or cultural shortcomings, and a strong sense of how these are to be tackled coherently. The omission of any reference to the Scottish parliament is presumably deliberate, reflecting the Government's wish not to pre-empt the decisions of the newly elected body. Yet it is surprising to find no reference to the scope for new machinery for sponsoring joined-up policy, and to the challenge of distributing responsibilities between different sectors and different levels of government.

The announcement of a new strategic framework for FE is welcome. So is the fact that Scottish Enterprise will be producing a new skills strategy. But there is little sense that commitment to lifelong learning is likely to pervade Government thinking, from economic success to social justice.

My other major criticism of the paper is that it does not offer a clear agenda for debate. What kinds of shift will there be in the balance between initial and continuing education? What are the implications for education and training? What are the key employment and social trends to which the system will have to respond - for example, is the demand for skills unambiguously rising? How will lifelong learning contribute to combating social exclusion?

We do not expect definitive answers to such questions from a Green Paper, but an acknowledgement of their salience. The questions I have just listed may not be at the top of everyone's list. But the paper contains no such questions at all. Here it contrasts strikingly with its English equivalent, The Learning Age, which challenges its readers with a string of reasonably sharp questions. Opportunity Scotland is greener by far in appearance, but it has not been designed to encourage focused responses.

This correspondingly reduces the chances of coherent and productive debate. This is not a demagogic point. The lifelong learning message is very far from getting across to major sectors of society - even many of those who should be reasonably tuned into it. The Government has a crucial role in generating awareness Its rhetoric has to be forceful and realistic,but it also has to involve people in the issues. Opportunity Scotland assembles information, and announces intentions; it leaves open the question of where the energy to animate ideas will come from.

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

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