The Next Milestone in UK Lifelong Learning

A potted chronology for you:

  • In 1903 The Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) was founded and continues to this day, albeit in a slimmer form, catering mainly for people who have ended their working lives.
  • In 1919, just after the Great War ended that local authorities took on a duty to provide any form of adult education and The British Institute of Adult Education was eventually set up. This organisation essentially continues today in the form of The National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE).
  • Just after the Second World War, a number of local authorities set up Adult Residential colleges in former large houses, some with Trade Union support.
  • The Open University pioneered accessibility to accredited study when it began in the 1970s.
  • The University of the Third Age (U3A) movement has been developing non-accredited, non-institutional, mostly self-directed informal learning since the late 80s.
  • In 1998 green paper The Learning Age kick-started a wide range of activity through colleges and community organisations. Introducing phrases such as ‘Individual Learning Accounts’, ‘Widening Participation’ and a number of funding streams.
  • In 1999 the Skills for Life strategy focused on basic skills for adults in response to a serious identified deficit.
  • In 2006 the Train to Gain initiative attempted to encourage businesses to boost the basic skills of their employees
  • In 2009 The white paper The Learning Revolution attempted to revitalise the breadth of informal learning
  • In 2011 The Review of Informal Adult Continuing Learning was commissioned by the new coalition

These stages could well correspond to my considerations of Lifelong Learning 3.0, which has not yet been born, but which infers that Lifelong Learning 1.0 and Lifelong Learning 2.0 preceded it. If there is a point when version 2.0 came into being, it will have been when the initial intentions and values of version 1.0 became distorted and, ironically, morphed into more capitalist-serving entities in the last decade of the 20th Century.

Once might feel that there is hope in the fact that the most recent policy milestones have been closer together and have fancy names. However, there is one very stark difference between the milestones on towards the end of this chronology and those earlier on. The later milestones are all based upon initiatives and strategies, not movements or physical changes. The cynics might even argue that the more recent attempts to address the need for adult education actually serve other purposes – giving lost-cost lip service to an issue whilst other more global and enterprising initiatives rule the economy.

Furthermore, the obsession with ‘lifelong learning’ only being of worth to working or potentially working people is ludicrous. In the light of the radical rethinking of retirement that is needed and of the well-documented and researched reasons for it, it needs to be seen less as a way into something and more as a way of life, in all its diverse forms.

Indeed, we talk about everything these days in relation to the economy. Even Society itself is merely a tool to serve the economy, whether it is providing consumers or producers. This is part of the problem we face. Whereas early in the 20th Century, providing adults with learning was seen as valuable, inspirational and philanthropic, these days it is seen as either of benefit to business and the economy or not. Other facets of enhancing social capital, well-being and empowerment of individuals are just as important, if not more so. These are being mentioned, although not in the same way as the headline catching economic benefits. The reasons for this is that social capital, well-being and empowerment of individuals are long term goals, and unlikely to have their impact assessed for a long time. Their measurables are less distinct than financial figures, and, besides, they are not likely to affect the next election.

Long term vision was what political movements thrived upon a century or more ago. Acute problems and rapid industrialisation went hand in hand and provided meaty fodder for policy makers and dreams to be founded upon. Today, however, we hop from strategy to strategy, burying the ones that fail (Individual Learning Accounts anyone?) and re-inventing ones devised by others, rather than trying to build upon something which is simple, common sense and, ultimately, will be understandable by the general public.

Personally, I shudder to think of what the next initiative or strategy will be called, because it will most likely simply reflect the zeitgeist of the corridors of power, rather than that of the people. The move towards informal learning is not unwelcome, but it needs to be done for the right reasons. I strongly suspect that ‘deschooling’ is alive and well, as it’s cheaper. With perhaps Twenty million adults who could be engaging in some kind of learning activity (Informal, non-formal and formal) – the other adults are engaged in bringing up families, work and other responsibilities – at less than a million, we aren’t even denting the surface.

My next milestone in UK Lifelong Learning will be when it is finally recognised and integrated into every level of life at individual, community and society level by being just as valued a segment of public spending as policing and health. This will be when it exists officially and supported by public institutions in every community in our country. This will be when Lifelong Learning is accepted for what it is and what it says it is.