Skills strategy and the pursuit of happiness

21st March 2003 at 00:00
RICHARD Layard's London University lectures on the pursuit of happiness as a goal of public policy have opened up an important vein of debate, of relevance to everyone who works with learners who participate of their own free will.

The thesis of the LSE's professor of economics is that everyone is able to tell social enquirers how happy they are, and that getting richer does not make you happier, unless everyone around you is doing broadly as well as you are. This chimes nicely with the evidence that the healthiest societies are those with narrow differentials between the affluent and the least well off.

By contrast with Scandinavia, the rich and the poor in the United States enjoy poorer health. The lesson seems to be that other people's misery is bad for you.

Meanwhile, the lessons from the Wider Benefits of Learning research centre show that learning has a positive effect on your health and longevity.

Going to class keeps your brain active, gives you a sense of purpose and a spring in your step. And, for most people, makes you happier, too.

This celebration of social capital is directly relevant to the skills strategy the Government expects to publish in June. So far, the focus of much of the debate has been on how best we can adapt the system to achieve the new Public Sector Agreement target to reduce by 40 per cent the number of people without level 2 qualifications.

The National Institute of Adult Continuing Education has argued that this offers a useful opportunity to revisit Helena Kennedy's proposal, in Learning Works, for the creation of a New Learning Pathway - offering people pursuing level 2 qualifications the package of tutorial and learner support that make such a difference to young people on A-level programmes, and adults pursuing Access courses. It would, I think, be money well spent - and would lead quickly to soaring retention and achievement rates.

As part of the skills strategy work, the learning and skills minister, Ivan Lewis, toured the country listening to employers talking about their experience and expectations of the formal system. The message he heard was consistent and powerful: our current national vocational qualifications system is not fit for purpose. The packages are too big. As a result, we can hope for a more coherent and inclusive qualifications framework to emerge from the joint work of the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, the Learning and Skills Council and the Sector Skills Development Agency, which have been given the job of reviewing the structure at speed.

There is a good case, too, for making sure that every area has coherent outreach programmes; for selective introduction of regulation to make sure all employers take their responsibilities for the development of their workforce seriously; and for a package of guidance activity that values barefoot as well as specialist guidance services. But it was not until I read Richard Layard's argument that I saw the case for an ancillary measure for the skills strategy. A happiness measure could build on the LSC's very useful learner satisfaction survey, and explore with learners the impact of their studies on the quality of their life at work, and outside of it. It would remind planners that the route to improved productivity is a complex one, and that there is more to learning than supporting economic growth.

It might re-secure a balance in the thinking about the role of adult and community learning, as we now call it. Ivan Lewis has made clear his commitment to the place of learning for its own sake alongside first steps learning. And the national policies of the LSC underpin that commitment through the guidance offered to local councils.

But up and down the country key officials feel the pressure to achieve the LSC's headline targets, and too many believe that uncertificated learning is a luxury they cannot afford. With a happiness measure, and a participation target alongside the headline Public Service Agreement targets, it might be easier for planners locally to include the enrichment of the lives of pensioners in their thinking.

To support this line of thinking, NIACE has made a case to ministers for the funding review to include the clear expectation that local councils should commit at least 3 per cent of their budgets for culture, community and citizenship. That is modestly more than the inherited and ring-fenced local authority budget for uncertificated work and the new initiatives in family learning and capital development the LSC now spends. It would take account of the valuable work in community-based adult learning that many colleges undertake, and it would enable those areas with thin provision to catch up.

Taken alongside the active "first steps" investment in neighbourhood centres, guidance and outreach, it should provide the rich mix needed to underpin a skilled and happy society.

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

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