Instituting Lifelong Learning

In the sphere of Lifelong Learning, near the end of the last decade, a timely series of reports was commissioned which resulted in Tom Schuller and David Watson presenting their book Learning Through Life: Inquiry Into the Future for Lifelong Learning. On publication in 2009, the IFLL report was classed by its authors 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”. It presented it claimed “radical recommendations for long term change.” By its own admission, it was intended, amongst its target readers, for researchers such as myself and provides a rich overview of situations and possibilities to ponder. I’d like to point out just a few of the significant conclusions for older adults that can be drawn from the Inquiry – whose fanfare seems to have been forgotten in the light of sever public sector cuts and yet, has some remarkable insights into what might be achieved.

The concept of Lifelong Learning is examined in detail, and there is a strong sense that radical reform needs to take place. The emphasis on front-loading our education system means that the latter half of life is almost ignored by our current system (if we really have one) and, yet, it has developmental potential and a necessity for such in order to keep people engaged as citizens. A suggestion is made to re-proportion the ratio of Learning through the life span to the tune of 80:15:4:1. The improvements in share of last two stages of life, almost a doubling of their respective weightings would be sure to change further in the future. This still means that 95% of learning will be expected to occur in the formal education and career-based learning stages, but the move to a 5% for older adults could be enough to change things significantly, if resources matched these proportions. These stages allow for what the IFLL calls “Key Transition Points” during the adult lifespan, at which opportunities for review and consideration of situation could be made and acted upon. Whilst the report acknowledges that age-related thresholds are not entirely reliable, as people ‘age’ at differing rates, it claims that it would be useful to set specific junctures to carry these processes out. Suggested points are at the ages of 25, 50 and 75 – the latter two perhaps broadly in line with some definitions of the Third Age and Fourth Age, although it is clear these thresholds are different for individual people and rely upon health, mobility and other life-stage criteria.

The upper level of 75 should, it suggests, be regarded as the normal upper age limit for economic activity and not linked to state pension age. Certainly this is a fresh view of the currently accepted life path, which seems to infer that formal economic activity can cease by the age of 67 – in reality, many people can continue longer, and, indeed,they will need to not least, but not only for economic reasons. Policy will need to reflect such a change, and support for such elongation of working life (both full and part time) will need to be provided. In Lifelong Learning terms, this reflects a need for “a more appropriate approach to the curriculum offer in later life.”.

Whether the age of 75 can be considered as a threshold between the Third and Fourth Ages (not that these terms need to be stuck to, they are useful to refer to as life stages), is open to further debate. However, the way we think about both (st)ages as a society needs to change, because in their current forms they have not really been addressed before in a formal way and they need to be. Schuller and Watson make the point that “The third age is the time when more people will be doing more things differently than at any time previously in history.” Thinking about this for a moment, we begin to see immense implications within the statement. We are addressing a need to cater for a stage of life that previously has been seen as a ‘wind-down’ into retirement, whereas, in reality, the future is going to mean that people will benefit from being enabled, supported and motivated to continue being active citizens in many ways.

Examples of what older adults engage in can be given through the various roles the find themselves playing in today’s society. These include continuing in traditional employment, developing new careers (both full or part time), undertaking unpaid volunteer work and continuing or taking on traditional family roles as grandparents, step-grandparents and carers. Each of these categories has many variations for which a Lifelong Learning system should be devised and implemented to genuinely support and empower.

The report makes a key recommendation of creating a ‘Citizen’s Curriculum’, not a new idea, but one which takes into account the entire lifespan, and does not assume that all ages of people are the same. The modern context certainly can accommodate what the report calls ‘space for creative, aesthetic, spiritual and other dimensions of personal development and growth”, but the authors are nevertheless wary about this sounding too idealistic.

As an aside on this, it occurs to me that any ‘curriculum’ will have grandiose aims, but these will only be relevant when looking at a society holistically from a policy-maker’s point of view. This does not really address the issue of how Lifelong Learning can be made attractive enough to individuals so they will enthusiastically engage with it, seeing it as relevant to their own lives. This is why we must always look at what we plan from both the angle of producer (i.e. policy-makers) and that of consumer (i.e. potential learners).

So, what, exactly, could this new Citizen’s Curriculum consist of? The report makes a good case for basing its strategy upon capabilities. These of course, are elements for a strategy, not a selling point, but they do give a strong opportunity to link with policy relevances, both current and future – and lack of apparent relevancy has arguably been one of the major nails in the coffin of Lifelong Learning over the last 40 years. Capabilities, the authors quote, are “combinations of doings and beings’. There is something ‘of its time’ about this phrase, which suggests that Lifelong Learning can both give people something to do, but can also help them to develop. “converting potential into actual” is another expression used within the report. The four capabilities are as follows:

  • Digital Capability
  • Heath Capability
  • Financial Capability
  • Civic Capability

Interesting to note that this makes no specific reference to the basics of literacy and numeracy which have predominated the direction of education in recent times. Instead, they are ‘class’ led, with each ‘class’ representing a large arena of possible development, but implying a relevance to societal need. Health, Financial ad Civic Capabilities each have their importance if older adults are to flourish in the future. Schuller and Watson suspect Civic Capability shows the least variation across the life course of all four, as the others change according to life stage and circumstances, but the civic interaction is perhaps more dependent upon personal design.

Innovative, yet essential, is the confidence of the IFLL report that there could be a local minimum guarantee that provision of opportunities to cater for this set of Capabilities could be a core everywhere in the country. This leaves room for every locality addressing the need in a different way, but policy-wise, it is hard to disagree with the motives for attempting to improve and sustain health, financial and civic strength for adults throughout their life span.

In my view, another odd one out in this list is this first, Digital Capability, as it seems far more focussed upon a single dimension (modern technologies) because “technology is pervasive these days”. However, as an enabler for effective communication in today’s world, it is almost indisputable that confidence in the use of such techniques is an asset. It is apparent here that each capability is identified as a need to be addressed not just because of what it can add, but also because of what it can prevent. For instance, Financial Capability being nurtured could minimise the terrible paralyses that result from debt problems, and Health could alleviate much pressure on stretched medical services.

Now, it may be that we might be expecting too much from Lifelong Learning as being a solution to all ills. Indeed, many would agree that organised education itself is not the only way people are prepared for the world, and it is a combination of elements that together contribute to the success of any system. This 2009 report cites the second Crick report (1998) which, within an emphasis on “Citizenship’ defined roles for citizens: consumer, community member, family member, taxpayer, voter, worker and lifelong learner. Note that Lifelong Learner is just one of the roles, so perhaps it should not be viewed as pervading everything else. In retrospect, we can perhaps judge the aftermath of Crick as being a little too geared to capitalist ideals, rather than being realistic about what contributions can be made through active citizenship being worked on over a longer length of time. Sprouting from that era came numerous headings that constituted the structure of policy documents of organisations and initiatives such as: role understanding, moral values, ethical awareness, discretion and selectivity, financial management, risk assessment, change management, action planning and impact assessment. It is therefore far more sensible, given that such bureaucracy did not prevent recession and its traumas, to simplify things so that the core aims are more universal and understandable.

One thing is certain, however, that the IFLL report of 2009 was a positive step forward in Lifelong Learning and it made a fairly accurate appraisal through consultation and research of the state of play. It makes attempts to be realistic about the future, emphasising that only through organisation, opportunity, funding and support can lifelong learning and active citizenship really end up being mutually influential for the better. Both enhance autonomy, develop identity, encourage contribution, generate hope and action. One might argue that that is the purpose of Learning anyway, but I am not quibbling, instead it is an opportunity to raise the hopes once again that Lifelong Learning might not simply be tagged on the end of a list of requirements for Citizenship, as it is offers so much more:

“Stronger, independent-minded citizens, engaged in lifelong learning, will contribute to better, more accountable government …. be able to review more critically and creatively the values and workings of society, will cherish tolerance of diversity and difference, will exercise more control over the unfolding of their own lives, including, importantly their health and well-being and will be able to deploy knowledge and understanding to their own benefit and to that of fellow citizens, in both this country and internationally.” (Bob Fryer, quoted on p.180)

A positive factor in relation to one of my own key focusses, Andragogy, is that this Citizen’s Curriculum would need to be delivered through pedagogy for adults. In this, there is an important role for providers including FE colleges, who should have the resources and duty to provide support for adult pedagogy. This means differentiating from other teaching so that elements specifically attributable to adult learning can be developed such as personalisation, flexibility, drawing upon existing knowledge and experience, enhanced opportunities through developing learners in roles such as assistant, mentor, coach and support. It also means recognising informal learning and activity that cab occur, given the chance, outside a classroom, exploiting ‘communities of interest’ – ever so much more than simply labeling something such as ‘workplace learning’ or ‘club’. In this respect, the report does present successes of recent initiatives such as Community Learning Champions and Union Learning Representatives – both of which should be developed further.

Other recommendations from the IFLL report include the establishment of a Respository of materials to support Lifelong Learning. In a realistic society, we should not expect every provider to reinvent the wheel, especially if many of these providers are to be expected to operate on a budget. Somewhat ironically, Digital Capability opens doors in this respect, especially in the vein of open source and open license resources available across the Internet these days. To contribute to the structure of the field, Lifelong Learning Exchanges (LLEs) should be set up, which can actively encourage the flourishing of activities in the future which can enhance Lifelong Learning. Despite an emphasis on the Digital, it is recognised that learners will still need to talk and meet, so the management of physical and social spaces should be another priority.Finally, taking stock of the past, a link to employability and the challenges and opportunities this provides is crucial as we seek to integrate adults at all stages of life more readily into the economic structure.

It seems that the reaction and subsequent reactions to Learning Through Life were dampened by what has happened in the meantime in terms of cuts in the public sector. Many people have been displaced from their jobs and expertise has been lost. We need to regain the safe, dry land again and not let all the balls tumble to the floor. Progress was being made, but things in Lifelong Learning have been relatively quiet of late. The publishing organisation of the final report, NIACE, has had a change at the top, (due to retirement of the much respected Alan Tuckett), Age Concern and Help the Aged merged to form AgeUK and these are key players in the realm of provision for older adults. Communities are picking themselves up again after the ‘austerity measures’. Much is still being expected from the Big Society, and much is still to be delivered in terms of fulfillment of promises made.

I do have concerns however, because changes in personnel also mean changes in what can be remembered. David Blunkett, once a great hope for Lifelong Learning when he commented so positively in his forward to green paper ‘The Learning Age’ (1998), was able to desist a mention of business and commerce is his comments upon the 2009 report:

“Crucially, it identifies the major changes taking place in our society and the challenges they bring in maintaining functioning communities, and active and effective citizens.”

Current government minister David Willetts commented at the time (he was in the shadow cabinet then):

“we must start to move towards an adult education system that is more responsive to learners and employers.”

My worry is that ‘learner’ and ’employer’ are the wrong expressions – both are citizens making up the communities we exist in, but are distinct roles, and people are what need to be assisted and supported, not the roles they might eventually undertake, at the risk of excluding other roles in society that might be equally effective. A constant presumption that Lifelong Learning is just a tool for the economy is flawed and shows that the report’s contents need to be absorbed more deeply.

One thing is clear though, that we need to revive the momentum and consider the future of Lifelong Learning as it could make up a factor in our future prosperity, both social and economic.


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

The Inquiry into the Future for Lifelong Learning website:

The Learning Age:a renaissance for a new Britain