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Information for Social Change

Information for Social Change

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ISC 14. The Learning Society Revisited

Patrick Ainley


For the past decade and more those of us in the various branches of the 'infocation' business have been blown about by the windy rhetoric of a 'Learning Society'. Conservative governments started it when they proposed turning Britain into 'a Learning Society' by the year 2000. They endorsed the National Education and Training Targets formulated by the employers' Confederation of British Industry in 1991. These proposed a 'skills revolution' to create 'a new training culture' in which individuals would be 'empowered with real buying power' for 'career mobility and needs satisfaction'.

So what has happened since then? Are we now living in a new millennial learning nirvana, or has something gone wrong, or is something else going on? This article briefly revisits the Learning Society notion to answer these questions.

Towards the certified society

As defined by government and CBI, a 'Learning Society' is one that systematically increases the skills and knowledge of all its members to exploit technological innovation and so gain a competitive edge for their services in fast-changing global markets. This requires a workforce that is computerate rather than merely functionally literate and numerate, as was needed for the first industrial revolution. At the same time, the rapid pace of technical change demands workers who are flexibly able to adapt to new technology throughout their working lives. 'Lifelong Learning' permeating all aspects of social life thus replaces 'front loaded' schooling and apprenticeship only for the young.

The CBI's vision assumed a general 'upskilling' of the labour force. However, the consensus from research is that a process of 'skill polarisation' is occurring in employment, together with heightened academic differentiation in education. Although unemployment is officially below one million in the UK, millions of people are relegated to insecure, intermittent and semi-skilled jobs.

Meanwhile in education and training, at one pole those with basic skills and special educational needs plus English language learners are on programmes requiring participation in training or work experience as a condition of 'workfare' payments. At the other pole are those whose pre-existing elite culture is legitimated by academic higher education. Between these two extremes are millions of indebted students and trainees, adults as well as younger people, whose participation in education and training is often prompted by unemployment. In work, others are forced to participate in 'training' that has more to do with dancing to their bosses' tunes of 'organisational management' than increasing their knowledge and skills.

The result is rampant qualification inflation as millions run up and down an escalator on which their diplomas devalue even as they acquire them. This is leading not to a learning but to a certified - and certifiable! - society.

Giving education a bad name

It is not accidental that accusations of 'dumbing down' have paradoxically accompanied the unprecedented expansion of further, higher and continuing education.

Yet 'education', 'training' and 'a Learning Society' are felt to be such self-evidently good things that hardly anybody questions them. For teachers and other professional educators it is perhaps self-interested to foster this illusion of the epoch. But teachers especially are vilified for widespread dissatisfaction with the learning game, while at all levels from primary to post-graduate schools their conditions of employment are deprofessionalised as they teach to the test for performance related pay. The 'Learning Society' is thus not also the 'Teaching Society' since increasingly students are expected to teach themselves. Teachers and lecturers are relegated to 'facilitators of learning'.

A dispassionate look at the term might suggest that every human society is 'a Learning Society' in the sense that, since culture cannot be genetically inherited, everything known has to be re-learnt by each new generation. This would be true even of so-called 'primitive societies' that anthropology supposed existing without history. However, learning might also be posed in terms of how societies learn from historical experience; as for example how Germany and other countries learnt from the experience of fascism, or from the ultimate failure of the socialist experiment in the former-Soviet Union, or the lessons we have not begun to learn in Britain from the experience of Empire.

Such real social learning would necessarily be collective and democratic, open to different interpretations and to debate. This is not the intention of the 'Learning Policy' inherited from the Conservatives and developed by successive New Labour governments. Instead, knowledge and skill are individualised and limited to portfolios of information and competence, while learning is separated from leisure and popular culture. Education and training's main purpose becomes social control outside of work and managing organisational change within employment.

Further than where? Higher than what?

Further and higher education provide good examples of what is going on. They show how contracting out to 'providers of learning and skills', as colleges must now call themselves, exemplifies the new information society of management by e-mail and self-management for minions.

The market mechanisms that have been accepted by FE and HE management typically devolve funding for teaching and research from the government's Treasury to funding councils to colleges. As in other areas of the contracting state, this centralises control in the hands of the funder of the contract whilst making the fund-holder accountable for fulfilling the contract. Fund-holders may then subsequently subcontract to subordinate agencies regulated in like manner.

At the same time, if the clients of services (in this case students) can be constituted as a market through 'empowerment' by loans and Individual Learning Accounts that they can spend when and where they wish, then determination of funding is opened to the market. The wider social purposes of education, previously open to democratic accountability, are lost. Thus, whole sections of the welfare state - not only the schools and colleges that have been removed from the democratic control of local councils - are being dismantled for privatisation.

Staff who provide courses in colleges must respond to the pattern of student demand. This is especially the case under the conditions of output related funding already obtaining in FE where colleges don't get paid until their students complete their courses. But staff also, like fund-holders, set the conditions for the courses they offer on the market. Staff regulate students and students regulate staff, who are in turn contracted to the college, in turn contracted to and therefore controlled by funding councils and ultimately the Treasury.

Students, working their way through university and college, paying through the nose and up to their ears in debt, become increasingly utilitarian in their approach to learning. Their study is reduced to cramming information for regurgitation in academic examination or to the acquisition of so-called 'key', 'personal and transferable skills'. These are actually generic competences necessary for a variety of employments rendered increasingly similar by the latest applications of new technology.

Overarching schemes of knowledge are thus reduced to jumbles of information while holistic skills are separated into their component items of performance or competences. Teaching is confused with testing and qualification with certification. Despite the exponential increase in available information in a variety of media, lack of the knowledge, skill and judgement to make sense of it all results in 'information overload'.

Some academics actually make a virtue of all this with their notion of 'postmodernism'. This celebrates the collapse of old ideologies and ridicules any attempt to build or rebuild a new 'grand narrative' such as the theories of science and humanitarian progress that have sustained progressive thought since the enlightenment. They totally confuse their students with this 'Destruction of Reason'.

Learning to survive

In opposition to this individualised 'Learning Society', it is impossible to return to the old certainties it has replaced. Instead, a new alternative has to be found. Its economic underpinning will be full (but not full-time) employment, integrated with learning in and out of work and in and out of education and training institutions; i.e. the right to earn combined with the right to learn.

Such working and learning should be integrated with leisure and popular culture through what has been called 'cultural production'. This requires a sharing of knowledge/skill and power in a democratically reconstructing state; plus the use of human-centred technology to develop useful knowledge/skills for survival. Such really useful knowledge can be acquired through practical project learning in and out of employment as well as in and out of institutional education and training. This would be real learning in a real 'Learning Society'.

The free market Utopia advocated by 'Learning Society' ideology in which the endless production of commodities can supposedly satisfy all individual demands is not open to the necessity of integrating humanity with its environment. So, a shift in perspective is required towards a view of the world within which collective decisions can endorse what knowledge is useful for our survival as a species.

The fundamental cultural activity if society is to be so reconstructed from the bottom up is democratic debate and decision making. Just as we cannot return to the bureaucratic management of the old welfare state so we cannot return to its professional paradigm in which all-knowing professionals acted on behalf of ignorant and passive clients. The welfare state can only be saved by a resolutely decentralised reform in terms of its management and local control, even though its financing will still involve national redistribution according to priority of need.

The first priority for any government seriously committed to a real Learning Society would therefore be to re-establish the central purpose of education, science and the arts in society: to stimulate thought and develop new knowledge and skills to deal with a rapidly changing reality. This would be a real cultural revolution - not the partial 'skills revolution' of the CBI limited only to vocational preparation and individual competition.

Nor would this new learning policy present itself only as learning for leisure. Cultural production is essential not only for the increased education and training required for a labour process and a Learning Society consciously involving all its citizens but also to encourage the restoration of the environment that the destructive production of commodities in the past has already gone so far to destroy.

The new democratically reconstructing state will also need its own and non-competitive relation with other developed economies as well as a non-exploitative relation to the developing countries inhabited by the vast majority of the world's increasingly impoverished population. This implies both a new internationalism and a new regionalism. In a Europe of the regions this would strengthen resistance to the depredations of monopoly capital operating through the US-dominated global market.

The first step to generalise the knowledge and skills to inform democratic modernisation is to establish for as many people as possible the normality and desirability of full-time education to 18 and recurring returns to free education full- and part-time thereafter. At the same time this 'front-loaded' full-time educational entitlement would be integral to work in and out of formal employment so as to learn from work if not learn to work. Instead of being limited to vocational preparation and academic certification, it would be integrated with local popular cultures and recreations, allowing knowledge and skills to be developed and assessed on practically useful projects.

This entitlement to meaningful education in which learners themselves decide what is worth learning, should also be used to emphasise the assumption of full citizenship rights and responsibilities for all from the age of 18, instead of socially excluding a section of youth to a secondary labour market to which they are at present relegated by academic 'failure'.

Simply, education can no longer be about selection for the employment hierarchy. The 'needs' of industry have to be set in a wider framework of human cultural and environmental need. New technology provides the potential to enable all working people to become multiskilled and flexible in a true sense, able to undertake a wide range of specific and general tasks, including self-management of their co-operative enterprises and democratic government of their society. In other words, only information combined with democracy can provide the knowledge and skills necessary for survival in a real 'Learning Society'.

Dr. Patrick Ainley is Reader in Learning Policy at the University of Greenwich. His latest books include Learning Policy: Towards the Certified Society, published by Macmillan in 1999, and From earning to learning: what is happening to education and the welfare state, published by Tufnell Press in 2000 (See


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