The strong arm of the 'learning society';Books

22nd October 1999 at 01:00
Alan Tuckett and Patrick Ainley review the latest thinking on lifelong education released in a clutch of new publications

SPEAKING TRUTH TO POWER, RESEARCH AND POLICY ON LIFELONG LEARNING, edited by Frank Coffield. The Policy Press, pound;13.99, 1 86134 147 4

LEARNING AT WORK, edited by Frank Coffield, The Policy Press, pound;13.99, 1 86134 123 7

Why's the Beer Always Stronger Up North? Studies of Lifelong Learning in Europe, edited by Frank Coffield, The Policy Press, pound;13.99,

1 86134 131 8

THESE reports from the Economic and Social Research Council's learning society programme raise fundamental questions about the nature of educational research, and therefore concern everyone in education and training today.

The Government has embraced a notion of "evidence-based" policy informed by research that they have borrowed from medicine. The jury is still out on whether this works in hospitals, but certainly education is not medicine.

Nevertheless, the chief inspector of schools favours the approach, following an inquiry he commissioned into what he called "irrelevant" educational research from Newcastle University Professor James Tooley, an advocate of privatised schooling.

In this political minefield Frank Coffield, also now a professor at Newcastle, presents the findings of the research programme he has directed for the past five years. His final conclusion is that "the learning society" represents a new form of social control.

This is certainly not a truth that power is likely to listen to. But then, as Maurice Kogan points out in his magisterial review of The Impact of Research on Policy inthe first of these collections, government hardly ever listens to researchers because government already knows what it wants.

This is a pity because the five following reports in this first volume,while they lack coherence, range from recommendations for adult guidance, through to learning at work and in the NHS, and a description of the socially-polarising effects of competition between sixth-forms, further education and training in south London.

FE Focus readers will be familiar with these last findings and perhaps surprised to find them described as startling new discoveries. Their restatement is welcome, however.

The most valuable research reported in this first collection - even though it has previously appeared elsewhere - is an extensive survey of skills according to various measures. The conclusion is that skill levels for the majority of employees have risen over the past 11 years, particularly among women.

In the Learning at Work volume, another paper by the same authors suggests "redirecting the research agenda" to examine learning at work. Another paper similarly points out how much workers learn at work from their workmates. Construction training in Wales is also usefully compared with that in Germany, along with job rotation in Europe. And literature on continuing vocational training is reviewed.

The most forceful report in this second collection rebuts the prejudices of the personnel director at Nissan UK who asked why a project on "the meaning of the learning society for adults with learning difficulties" had been funded by the ESRC.

The third collection of research reports brings together cross-national studies of lifelong learning and a final collection deals with "informal learning".

While not agreeing with Professor Tooley that the research reported here is typical in its academic irrelevance, and therefore wasteful of pound;2.5 million in public money, I wonder how much of it would have been undertaken anyway by the community of established academic researchers.

The research programme would have gained in coherence if FE and the new universities had been included as central players, as they are to efforts to create a real learning society that aims for emancipation rather than control. As it is, FE and the new universities only figure as the objects of research for academics in antique universities. This ignores the variety of research already going on in FE and the new higher education, and consigns mass further and higher education to teaching-only status.

Yet the Government's agenda for educational research favours concentrating it in centres of excellence in the elite universities where institutes of education are already vying to provide the "evidence-based" findings required.

This will indeed confirm the learning society as the new form of social control that Frank Coffield concludes that it already is.

Professor Ainley is a reader in further and higher education at Greenwich


Log-in as an existing print or digital subscriber

Forgotten your subscriber ID?


To access this content and the full TES archive, subscribe now.

View subscriber offers


Get TES online and delivered to your door – for less than the price of a coffee

Save 33% off the cover price with this great subscription offer. Every copy delivered to your door by first-class post, plus full access to TES online and the TES app for just £1.90 per week.
Subscribers also enjoy a range of fantastic offers and benefits worth over £270:

  • Discounts off TES Institute courses
  • Access over 200,000 articles in the TES online archive
  • Free Tastecard membership worth £79.99
  • Discounts with Zipcar,, Virgin Wines and other partners
Order your low-cost subscription today