Lifelong Learning and the Social Guarantee

Lifelong learning – the opportunity for adults to take up learning across all stages of life – is rising up the political agenda. Unesco has declared it is a ‘common good’ which benefits society as a whole and is ‘fundamental to people’s lives’. That chimes exactly with the SG message.

‘Creating a global culture of lifelong learning’, says Unesco, ‘will be key to addressing the challenges faced by humanity, from the climate crisis to technological and demographic change, not to mention those posed by the COVID-19 pandemic and the inequalities it has exacerbated.’

As more people live longer, questions about what they will do with this added time, and how well they are equipped to manage it, come bubbling up. Meanwhile, the combination of Covid and new technologies has disrupted many traditional ways of working and living, and this demands we think harder about the skills and competences we need to flourish today, personally and professionally.

But we are still far from a genuine system of lifelong learning. Indeed in the last decade we in the UK have gone sharply backwards. The latest survey by the Learning and Work Institute (L&WI) shows participation in adult learning actually falling by about one third between 2010 and 2019 – a really sharp drop, with further and community education suffering particularly acute cuts. (There was an increase last year, mainly due to a change in 2020 in the way participation is counted.)

Participation in learning during last 3 decades

Source: Learning & Work Institute

No one has any difficulty recognising access to education as a basic component of Social Guarantee, but I want to argue

a) that this should be seen as extending beyond school and college for young people, and

b) that access to informal modes of learning should be included, as well as institutional teaching and learning.

The SG offers a fresh chance of building in lifelong learning as a fundamental part of social life.

The SG philosophy of universality applies directly to lifelong learning, especially in its equalising potential. People who have done less well at school are least likely to access learning of any kind, either work-related and for personal development. According to the L&WI, if you stayed at school at least until the age of 21, you are twice as likely to be learning later in life than those who left aged 16 or under. There’s a similar contrast between income groups, with adults in lower socio-economic groups being twice as likely not to participate as those in higher groups.

There are several ways in which universal access can be encouraged. One such is a system of personal learning accounts, trialled under New Labour and sadly discarded because of a design fault. Even limited entitlements, such as the automatic offer of cash-limited support for learning on a 40th, 50th or 60th birthday, would spread the entitlement. At the same time, though, we need a broader commitment to public funding, with proper support for the basic infrastructure of colleges that are open to all ages.

But we shouldn’t see lifelong learning as only about enrolment in formal courses. A cornucopia of learning material is available online through providers and platforms such as FutureLearn. What we need are the environments where people can share their student experiences, help each other understand whatever it is that they’re learning and benefit from the insights of their peers as well as professional educators. Learning is, in many ways, a glue that can bind societies and communities together. In particular it can bring people from different generations together to share their concerns; we have all too few spaces where such intergenerational communication happens.

Lifelong learning overlaps with another SG component, universal digital access. Everyone needs reasonable access to digital services at a reasonable price. This is partly for everyday communication but also for access to all the information and knowledge that is so readily available. There is also an overlap with health: we need to understand information provided by health professionals if we are to keep ourselves reasonably fit and well. For all of these purposes most of us will need access to learning.

Having worked in adult education for almost five decades, I’m used to similar discoveries about the value of such learning being made – on average - about once a decade. Still, it’s welcome. Let’s hope for a real breakthrough this time.

SG recommendations in brief:

  • Expand ‘education’ to include learning opportunities for all ages

  • Support a universal learning entitlement at, for example, 50th birthday

  • Promote community learning exchanges

Tom Schuller was the director of the UK’s national inquiry into the future of lifelong learning, 2008-10. He co-authored the inquiry’s final report, Learning Through Life.