There is such a thing as society, Mrs Thatcher;FE Focus;Books

17th September 1999 at 01:00
OVERCOMING EXCLUSION THROUGH ADULT LEARNING. By Ian Nash and John Walshe. Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, OECD, 2 rue Andre- Pascal, 75775 Paris 15, France.

MARGARET THATCHER would have found this book uncomfortable. Right from the start it argues that investment in human capital and social capital should be complementary.

"Policies to support networks, communities and structures that positively support learning (social capital) represent sound approaches to bolster employability, while strengthening in adults their own sense of inclusion, their identity as citizens and confidence in themselves, their communities, families and personal lives."

This is a key conclusion of the studies of 19 innovative case studies looked at in six member states of the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which explored the impact adult learning can make on overcoming exclusion.

"Exclusion", explains the report, "involves a lack of social belonging and the absence of a sense of community." We are lucky to have the United Kingdom as one of the countries reviewed, since the price of policies focused overwhelmingly on labour market needs are vividly expressed. The price of too much reliance on the market is that "those with acute learning needs are most at risk of exclusion, while being also least likely to become lifelong learners."

The report, which was prepared by Ian Nash of The TES and John Walshe of the Irish Independent draws on detailed country studies in Belgium (Flanders), Mexico, the Netherlands, Norway, and Portugal, in addition to the UK.

The examples are impressive. They include an account of community development work in Sabrosa, an isolated mountain district in the north-east of Portugal, hard hit by rural depopulation. Four years of sustained inter-agency collaboration has led to the eradication of illiteracy for people under 50, a modest repopulation, and the recovery of traditional skills forgotten by local people.

In Nuevo San Juan Parangaricutiro, Michoacan, Mexico, an indigenous people's programme for learning for community enterprise has created more than 900 jobs, and led to self-managed community services, and a sophisticated business enterprise. This is in an area where locals have until now missed out on improvements in living standards. In both these projects, the boundary between learning for economic prosperity and for community regeneration is blurred. Good effects for one generation have a spillover effect for others.

The authors conclude that in a world where the labour market has turned against low-waged workers, and where credentials are increasingly necessary, but decreasingly sufficient for labour-market participation, there is a good case for investing in adult learning. The benefits are clear, yet most of the projects observed are bedevilled by short-term funding.

Often, modest, but sustained funding produces more effective outcomes than big scatter-gun investments. These are reassuringly familiar conclusions minted from sharply different contexts. And they do point to a clear lesson. Despite what Mrs Thatcher said, there is such a thing as society; and where it nurtures confident learners almost anything is possible.

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