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Worth more than words can say

The Benefits of Learning: the impact of education on health, family life and social capital

By Tom Schuller, Cathie Hammond, Angela Brassett-Grundy, John Preston and John Bynner

RoutledgeFalmer pound;22.99

Many Pathways to Literacy: young children learning with siblings, grandparents, peers and communities

Edited by Eve Gregory, Susi Long and Dinah Volk

RoutledgeFalmer pound;22.50

The Intellectual Capital of Schools

By Anthony Kelly

Kluwer Academic Publishers pound;24.

We know education is good for the economy; we take for granted that it's also good for individuals, families and communities. How that happens, though, is less clear - and that is why the current government, committed to its policy of lifelong learning, set up in 1999 the London University Centre for Research into the Wider Benefits of Learning. The Benefits of Learning is its first major report, and very interesting it is.

The group interviewed in depth a representative sample of adult learners, plotting their perceptions of the pros and cons in areas such as health, family life and social capital. How far were such outcomes personal in their impact, and how far were they collective? How far were they transformative, as opposed to stabilising or sustaining?

Could they be described in terms of "capital" - assets to be developed and exploited? And, crucially, could the qualitative (and highly subjective) indications from this approach be confirmed by reference to quantitative data from child development and birth cohort studies? The answer to that, of course, is "up to a point" - but there are lots of indications.

Continuing education does seem to pay dividends in health terms, does affect families (not always, in the short term, comfortably) and does create a reservoir of personal confidence and skill that communities (a problematic term) may draw upon. It certainly develops social contacts and advantages. Whether this adds up to "social capital", in a collective sense, is much less clear. The argument is important, though, and everyone involved in continuing education (still, in spite of the slogans, a Cinderella subject) needs to confront it.

The case studies, in particular, make fascinating reading: a reminder, if one was needed, of the inadequacies of much of our statutory school provision.

Another reminder is Many Pathways to Literacy. The focus here is on the early years, but the subtitle reflects a form of social capital that is widely undervalued, not least in education. The conventional view is that literacy has to be taught. There's a national strategy; teachers have a central role; they are all-important for minority children who have English as a second language. One school of studies, though, argues that there are various sorts of literacy, and that the "social literacies" of various cultural groups are the essential underpinning of children's linguistic understanding. It is in the home, in storytelling and (especially) in play with their siblings and friends that the seeds of literacy are sown.

The book is full of carefully observed examples of this, drawn from studies of minority communities in the United Kingdom and the United States. Some of them are compelling (such as the story of four-year-old Samia, silent in school, who translates from English to Urdu for her two-year-old brother); all of them point to the importance, as the authors see it, of schools maintaining a commitment to the first language as well as to English, and to the social and familial capital that nurtures it. That means, they say, rethinking the curriculum and the pedagogies we select or praise.

That is not one of the recommendations of Anthony Kelly's The Intellectual Capital of Schools. This is aimed at an international market but it draws its examples and conclusions from the United Kingdom. Kelly argues that the sum of a school's knowledge, know-how and resources is its intellectual capital - its capacity for adding value and winning market share. His book (subtitled "lessons from the commercial sector") is about how such capital should be measured, managed, retained and rewarded.

Inevitably, it is heavily managerial in tone, with much on critical process, job evaluation, knowledge continuity audits and intellectual capital metrics. On this level it sounds forbidding. At a deeper level, though, it is reassuringly practical and humane, and there are insights that headteachers particularly will respond to. Not all that matters can be measured; not all that's measured always matters. Though value-added is the holy grail, the nature of value is always changing.

Adult Learners' Week runs from May 15-21. For more information go to 2004. Also see this week's FE Focus

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