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Like motherhood and apple pie, lifelong learning is simply a good thing, something all of us value and enjoy. That has to be right, doesn’t it? So why did over 100 people cram into the RSA’s meeting room last night to debate the future of lifelong learning? What’s the issue, why the interest?

Some people may well have turned up to hear the candid, refreshing and considered views of three eminent politicians: David Blunkett, David Willetts and Vince Cable (now Lord, Lord and Sir respectively, but previously Secretary of State, Minister and Secretary of State in various education, employment and skills departments).

But I think it was more than that which attracted and engaged the audience. Our starting point for the partnership between the RSA and Learning and Work Institute is the premise that a successful society requires active citizens learning throughout their lives. And we know from all sorts of research and data that we are far from this vision. Recent OECD research suggests that there are nine million people in England who lack the lack functional literacy or numeracy needed for them to play an active role in our society.

Our own Learning and Work survey series over last 20 years suggests a polarised picture with many people who are very positive about learning and many who are sceptical, indifferent or even averse to learning. It’s tempting to suggest that learning is therefore a bit like Marmite, but its more complex than that. Our evidence suggests that people who have a good learning experience, at any age, are highly likely to become serial lifelong learners. Conversely, bad experiences at school can lead to a lifelong scepticism or aversion to learning unless and until something triggers a conversion through a good learning experience. It is also striking that many people who don’t see themselves as learners recognise the need for what they will often call ‘an education’ for others, particularly for their own children.

The debate last night agreed that the case for investment in lifelong learning is well-evidenced, and covers many areas of public policy – health, employment, productivity, community, tolerance, family etc. In my time in this business I have yet to find a politician who is anything other than a supporter and advocate for lifelong learning – most have personal or family experience of why it matters. And it was much the same with our speakers last night, with David Blunkett setting it out clearly with his assertion that ‘you can assume that all three of us give a damn, or we wouldn’t be here otherwise’.

And yet, as everyone acknowledged, Government investment has dropped considerably over the past decade in anything other than the possibly narrow and utilitarian skills agenda, resulting in fewer opportunities for adults to participate in learning than before.

At the same time employers have reduced investment in their workforces, with a focus all too often on training in areas of compliance – health and safety for instance. Outside of full-time higher education, investment by individuals in their own learning has not taken off, despite loan facilities being available. But the debate moved beyond a simple issue of resources into other interesting areas.

The obsession with early years investment was denounced by David Willetts who cited the neuroscience which shows that the brain can develop throughout life, not just in the early years and that the return on investment in learning for a 50 year old is as strong as for a 3 year old. David Blunkett urged all of us to recognise and celebrate the distinction between training and learning, reminding us to focus on the role of learning to open minds, rather than simply to acquire basic or technical skills.

Vince Cable suggested that a key challenge for securing adequate Government investment is that too few senior politicians have first hand experience of the power of lifelong learning. The emotional attachment he has from his mother’s experiences of how adult education helped her cope with mental health challenges has secured his lifelong support, but for others that link might be missing.

As you might expect, there was a lot agreement about the need for us to have a culture of learning, throughout life. We found agreement on the many benefits, consensus on the challenges and some emerging focus on what needs to happen now. Perhaps more than that there was a welcome sense of ambition and optimism about the future. With an ageing society, new technology, the changing patterns and nature of work, shifting expectations and more employers having to think about skills (because of the new Apprentice Levy), the opportunities to develop a learning culture are there before us. All we need to do, as David Blunkett said, is ‘learn from the past, put our heads together and make it happen’.

Our speakers and audience also spelled out some of the risks, though. The focus on apprenticeships and higher education was viewed as too narrow, potentially restricting opportunities rather than expanding them. Devolution presents opportunities but there was concern about whether every locality has the capabilities to deal with the complexities. The enormous challenge of changing employers’ views and practices was skirted around, but acknowledged as a tough issue.

Overall, this debate was a great contribution to our thinking and to the Power to Create paper which we are partnering with the RSA on and is being written by RSA Fellow and Creative Learning and Development Team associate Dr Tony Breslin for publication in the spring. For us at Learning and Work Institute we will be driven by our vision of supporting everyone in our society to realise their ambitions and talents throughout life. At the moment, as last night confirmed, there are simply too many people denied the opportunities they want and need to achieve that. That’s a great motivator in helping to achieve a learning culture in our society.

 

David Hughes is Chief Executive of the Learning and Work Institute.

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