Instituting Lifelong Learning v2

In my previous post on the Inquiry Into the Future for Lifelong Learning (2009) I tried to pose a fairly positive view of it as “the definitive report into the future … the first authoritative and coherent strategic framework for lifelong learning in the UK for the next 10 15 years”. I embraced its intentions to present “radical recommendations for long term change.” I ended on a slightly concerned note that learners and employers were the wrong expressions to use as focal points and I hesitated at the continuing presumption that Lifelong Learning is just a tool for the economy. Despite this I acknowledge that many of the intentions of the inquiry were honourable and, indeed, sought to rectify somewhat mistakes of the past by looking objectively at the issues surrounding Lifelong Learning.

I am now firmly putting on my ‘older adult’ goggles and wish to appraise the report from that point of view, because it is here especially that I feel there is room for improvement and consolidation of ideas about ageing and what can be achieved. The report admits that some of its proposals involve quite major changes and some are more of ‘a tweak’, and even suggests that readers will argue about which is which. I will attempt to summarise the route the report takes and then deliberately play ‘devil’s advocate’ with the aforementioned goggles on. In the process, certain aspects will come to light that could give me material I could expand upon for the process of my research study.

Firstly, positing the right to learn throughout life as a human right, reducing the bias for initial opportunity and providing chance later on in life is almost non-contestable. The report affirms how Learning links with key elements within society: freedom of choice, well-being, democratic tolerance, productivity prosperity, local and global solidarity and responsibility. There is nothing new here, just an attempt to cover all general bases, which is admirable, but not necessarily reflected equally in the other proposals. These are idealistic in nature, as prosperity and productivity have existed in societies without strong emphasis on Learning, along with a disregard for things like tolerance and even well-being. It is not my intention to analyse this further, but I am wary of the over-generalisation of facts to suit an argument. Lifelong Learning is just a factor in all of these things, as every element of societal action is, so raising its significance too high is a possible mistake. We are, of course, talking about a very varied mixture of activity within Lifelong Learning, including informal learning, and a potential large part of people’s lives, especially if we seek to integrate it more fundamentally into working lives. Adult Learning is admittedly hard to compartmentalise because of its reach into so many policy areas, so the report does state that it hopes to start the search for a ‘common ground’ for the widely different audiences to look at the system as a whole. However, spreading the area so widely might eventually mean nobody will step up to the mark.

This is why I wonder whether the span of life that is being addressed needs to be split beyond the suggested review points of the ages of 25, 50 and 75 and further importance given explicitly to the 50+ age group as its needs, although having much in common with the 25+ age group, are significantly different. One might even argue that the 75+ age group must be a separate entity if only for the fact that the vast majority of people within it will be absolute consumers, rather than part consumer, part producer and therefore will be more or less entirely dependent upon services rather than contributing to them. The ‘re-balancing of the system’ mentioned as the central argument in the IFLL report, in the light of keeping up with the changes in patterns of working and living is fundamentally key to doing the right thing, but an attempt to encapsulate eight decades or more of life within a Learning framework may well be impossible.

The idea of ‘Learning Accounts’ presented by the report is not new, but it insinuates a desire for learning to be treated like a currency. Although this is true for part of Learning, it should not be for all Learning activity. One might argue that through various qualifications and standards developed over the last decades and centuries, we already do have this. The trouble with having piecemeal qualifications, is that there is a risk that the integrity and true effectiveness of undertaking a proper course of formal study will be undermined. Employers are right to have minimum requirements for job applications, but they consider the person as well. Much wealth is generated in the world without measures of qualification. More important are capability and capacity to do the job and, in the longer term, to fit in with an employer’s way of working. A credit system therefore is, in my opinion, unnecessary for older people, as experience and wisdom are almost impossible to quantify anyway. What’s more, we have to cater for the older adults we have today as well. Many of these have qualifications and experience already, although these may have been gained a long time ago. Expecting some of these people to ‘upskill’ is almost unkind, when all that is needed is to enable them to take a full part in society without penalising them for not having lived in dynamic education-rich times.

One of the first tasks of my formal research will be to make definitions for ‘Learning” and “Lifelong Learning”. It may well be that ‘Learning’ is the wrong expression to be used as an umbrella term, it may be a part of the Lifelong process, but there may be something else of which it makes up a constituent part. We may be trying to cast our net too widely, and, in the process, we are hoping that ‘Learning’ is the one ideal that applies to all stages of life. Why not, therefore ‘Schooling’, or ‘Developing’ – are we using a term simply because it is understandable, yet in the reality of how it is applied, it might not be 100% relevant?

This kind of consideration can complicate the whole debate of course, but in some respects Lifelong Learning has suffered by being the proverbial square peg in a round hole. If we seek to embody everything an adult might do outside of formal work and non-activty as ‘Lifelong Learning’ then we might never address its full needs. Learning is an activity undertaken by people to many different reasons. What does not exist at the moment is a workable and effective framework for learning through all stages of life that offers opportunity for those who want or need to engage in it. There is also the need to cater for an expanding older age group who have not existed in such a large proportion before.

A “Citizen’s Curriculum’ is nothing new either. Arguably all education systems have been established to ingrain some form of control over the populace. A formal curriculum in schools contains much of what could be included, but just having a curriculum does not answer the need, as in some communities, large numbers of 16-25 year olds (up to 25% in some urban areas) are not engaged in employment or education. This is a pressing need, which more effective Learning system can help to address, but it is not as applicable to adults of all ages, especially, in my view, older adults.

What would answer the need would be a flexibility of choice where people could engage in whatever things interest them, without an emphasis on being a citizen. Citizenship is a political ideal (or status for foreigners in a country to aspire to), not an individual’s dream of fulfillment. All activities people engage in will have a bearing on how they integrate into society – but pretending that one curriculum will change things forever in a democratic environment is both unrealistic and dangerous in its concept. Older adults will have been aware citizens for decades, what they need is opportunity to stay engaged without deep risk financially.

I already expressed my concern about the first of the Four Capabilities envisaged i.e. Digital. In time, digital capability will become ingrained in society, but we still have population over the age of 30 who will not have been born into the digital age and therefore have had, or still need to, get up to speed with it. However, many older adults express their right to freedom by simply not wanting to get involved, and surely this is simply a right for them? People have the right to not do something as well. We must also not pretend that technology is easy and foolproof, ecologically sound, age-friendly and the only way of achieving certain things. Despite the popularity of ‘social networking’ and ‘communications technology’, we have to continue to view these as choices, at least for the time being. There are exceptions, where technology could be employed to enhance certain activities both as a tool and as a device for delivery of content, but we should not suddenly expect a coherent user base to spring up before its time, let alone for it to be universal. The other Capabilities (Health, Financial and Civic) have unquestionable relevance to older adults. Civic Capability has many other areas subsumed into it (environmental capability for one). The problem with categories like these is that they are not all equal. I would hazard a guess that the majority of Lifelong Learning for older adults naturally falls into the Civic category anyway.

So, whilst the IFLL report has started the debates, it is by no means the solution, particularly where older adults are concerned. It would be easy for the 50+ age group to simply be tagged onto Lifelong Learning as an afterthought, and there is still this risk. The necessity to get it right for the potentially working population is immense. However, a similar amount of consideration needs to be given to how getting it right for the population above the age of 50 can be of benefit. Considering half the population by 2020 will be in that cohort, are we really seeking the right solutions?


Schuller, T., & Watson, D. (2009). Learning Through Life: Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning. National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (England and Wales).