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Lifelong learning: what does it actually mean?


Both NACETT and the Department of Education and Employment may point towards lifelong learning as the key to building on and sustaining skills for the UK's economy, but do the concepts behind it actually work?

That is the question researchers from the Economic and Social Research Council have sought to ask in a series of 15 projectsin Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and England aimed at looking at the status and role of post-compulsory education and training within the UK with a view to promoting best practice. The projects have been running under the banner of a research programme entitled 'The Learning Society: Knowledge and Skills for Employment' since 1994, and key findings were announced last week at a conference in London.

NACETT and the government may not find them particularly positive reading. One report finds a widespread lack of support in terms of time made available for employees to further their learning, and another finds a lack of motivation among employees to develop their skills further among those who need the development most.

Another report found that most companies invest in Continuing Vocational Training because it supports their business strategy, but the UK still suffers in general from a low initial skills base from which to work from. Working for qualifications and attending short training courses were important for some people at particular stages in their career. But even then, work-based learning was important in developing the ability to use what has been learned off-the-job. This was especially true for short courses, which the study says "have very little impact unless they are appropriately timed and properly followed up at work." Another study finds that five key factors, gender, family, initial schooling, time and place are crucial to participation in education and training and policies which simply make it easier for people to participate in the kinds of education and training which are already available (eg removing barriers to participation, such as costs, time and lack of child-care) are likely to have only limited impact.

Professor Frank Coffield, from the Department of Education at the University of Newcastle said: "Lifelong learning has been so seriously under-researched that it seems a rather underdeveloped concept to be considered the panacea for all our economic and democratic problems. Fortunately, research evidence is now slowly beginning to challenge the vacuous rhetoric which has for too long dominated conferences on lifelong learning." The Times reports that the professor finds the current definition of lifelong learning "awash with unsubstantiated generalities, armchair musings and banalities".

TrainingZONE says: It's clear that this research challenges current views about how much influence the government can ultimately have in championing lifelong learning. Individual choice and views on formal learning and a simple lack of time are substantial issues to be tackled, otherwise they will continue to form substantial barriers to ongoing participation in learning.


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