We've got to get a handle on change

28th November 1997 at 00:00
Bob Fryer says that lifelong learning as an integral part of a completely overhauled education system is the only way Britain can cope with a world that is in a constant state of flux.

We live in exciting and socially challenging times for education. We have seen the election of a Government committed to education as its three main priorities. In social terms, our country is experiencing far-reaching and fundamental changes, which go to the heart of our major institutions. Taken together, they call for a new vision and wholly new national strategy, based upon the objective of providing lifelong learning for all, and not just for the minority in our country.

From the outset it was evident that this vision would need to extend beyond formal education at primary, secondary and tertiary levels, and reaching into the more demanding and diverse world of lifelong learning. The many initiatives already begun need to be brought together to provide greater coherence, clarity, accessibility and achievement, especially from the point of view of those normally excluded from education.

Even before its electoral success, Labour had begun to champion three of its "big ideas" for changing education in this country - the University for Industry, Individual Learning Accounts and the New Deal, all of which need to figure in the vision.

The Government's early action in respect of school improvement and funding, and its schools White Paper also need to be fully integrated into the strategy of lifelong learning for all. The proposed National Grid for Learning, promising skills and connectivity for everyone, is a major opportunity to widen access and make use of new methods of study and communication. Where there has been early action in response to the financial problems of universities and in going some way to meet the current funding shortfall in further education, this needs to be linked to an overall national funding strategy. This should be concerned with moving, step by step, to a more appropriate balance of funding in order to make lifelong learning for all into a reality.

More broadly, the three recent major policy reviews of further and higher education by Tomlinson, Kennedy and Dearing, need to be fully learned and implemented in both of those sectors and beyond. They have in common a need for radical institutional reform, if a start is to be made in bridging the existing deep learning divide in our society.

The Tomlinson Report on inclusive learning should decisively shift the focus from problems presented by students to demands upon institutions to shape their learning environments in response to students' needs. The Kennedy Committee on widening participation in FE sets a radical agenda. Its proposals emphasise the value of collaboration, as against the wasteful elements of competition, in opening up post-school education to the millions of people currently untouched by it.

The Dearing Review of Higher Education holds out the prospect of universities being more closely involved in their various communities, as they help to orchestrate our response to a world increasingly influenced by knowledge, information and communications. It also lays down a major challenge to them to broaden the social composition of the student population.

All of this is grist to the mill. If anything, there are almost too many exciting initiatives to be able to incorporate them into a single coherent strategy and agreed priorities for one Parliament and possibly beyond. However, seen against the major challenges we now face as a nation, it is evident that nothing short of a complete overhaul will provide an adequate response.

Never before have so many people, in so many industries and occupations faced so much, and so extensive, change at work. We scarcely have the relevant cultural resources to know how to comprehend them, let alone support people in responding to them and shaping these changes to their own advantage. Far more has to be done to provide learning opportunities for the millions of people already in the workforce who have had few, if any, such chances to engage in learning since leaving school. If it is not done the widespread changes in work will overwhelm many.

Already there are deep divisions between "employment rich" and "employment poor" households, with the latter characterised by two and three generations of chronic joblessness. Those with low skills or non-transferable skills find themselves marooned in jobs with poor prospects and few chances of sharing in prosperity. New technologies and new methods of working soon render old approaches redundant and outdated. We need a massive drive to increase people's skills and to help them understand and shape the world of work, both individually and collectively.

But the challenges don't stop there. There are equally fundamental changes afoot in families, communities and in people's very identities. Economic and industrial change, geographical mobility, new patterns of migration and shifts in housing provision and ownership have all brought radical changes to local communities.

In addition, communities themselves continue to manifest enormous variety in their forms of voluntary organisation, community action and ways of enhancing the citizenship of their members. Learning should increasingly become a resource to support communities in change. It should recognise their plurality and celebrate their contribution to social and political engagement. In short, we need to ensure that learning opportunities are available to everyone who needs them. By doing so, we can not only help to regenerate communities, but also give individiuals the chance to become more active citizens.

At the level of households and families, learning can also add an enormous dimension to the development of individuals, their sense of self-esteem and their potential for educational and other attainment. Already, experience shows that support for family learning represents a major investment, not only for children, but also for other household and family members, especially parents and grandparents, This calls for a new partnership between schools, families and the community, breaking down some of the old divisions and resourcing learning in new ways.

The Fryer Report, pages 28-29

Bob Fryer is chair of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning

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