Learning to change
Learning to change

This free course is available to start right now. Review the full course description and key learning outcomes and create an account and enrol if you want a free statement of participation.

Free course

Learning to change

4.2 The wider social context – policy in the UK

In Section 3, you were introduced to a range of theories that have been developed within psychology to try to explain how learning takes place. These theories act as a starting point for how you might apply theory to your own learning. They also act as a starting point in applying academic skills. These skills include reading and note taking, but they also include thinking about what these theories might have to offer and what their weaknesses are. You may remember that we suggested three such weaknesses:

  • the lack of attention paid to the differences between individuals in how they learn
  • the importance of other people in our immediate social and learning environments
  • the importance of the wider societal or national frameworks created by other people, like politicians.

The first two of these were the focus of much of your work in Section 3, as you thought about communities of practice and Entwistle’s ideas about different approaches to study. This section deals with the third weakness – that of the wider social context. There are many ways that we could have approached this ‘bigger picture’ but we have opted to start by looking at lifelong learning policy in the UK. (We are focusing on general points that apply to the whole of the UK, but you should remember that there are important differences between England and the devolved nation-regions of Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland.) As we begin this discussion, it will quickly become apparent that there is a strong policy focus on work and skills. We realise that for some students on Learning to change, change will indeed involve work. We also recognise that other students will look to make other sorts of changes. However, whatever changes you are thinking about will be in the same context as far as national policy is concerned.

There is one other point to be made. Policy can be subject to many shifts and changes as individual politicians, and even whole governments, come and go. So there is a real danger that whatever we say at this point in time may quickly change. On the other hand, we think that it is likely that the fundamental issues will remain the same. Despite the appearance of constant changes in policy, concern about how the UK competes with other nations goes back to at least 1852 when Lyon Playfair, in a lecture on ‘Industrial Instruction on the Continent’ warned that ‘improvements in technical education were urgently required if Britain’s manufacturers were to maintain their lead over foreign competitors’ (Keep and Mayhew, 1988, cited in Esland, 1990, p. 194).

Activity 40 What are key aspects of policy about learning?

Allow about 30 minutes for this activity

This activity is based on your reading of two contrasting extracts. The first is taken from an article in a magazine called Adults Learning. This is produced by the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), an organisation that tries to influence government policy about adult learning. The second is taken from what is known as the Leitch Report. This report was accepted as the basis of government policy in 2006, but it is also fair to say that it reflected developments in policy which occurred before then.

There are two aspects that you should think about. It is probably best to read the extracts through twice. The first time you should focus on what seem to be the main aspects of policy. The second time you should decide how this is different or similar to your own experience. For example, on your first reading you may think that ‘skills’ seems to be an important aspect of policy making. You might be able to relate this to your own experience or to your knowledge about the range of learning opportunities that is available to you in your locality.

‘It’s not just the economy, stupid ’

By Colin Flint

The public that used to queue up to enrol for adult education classes at the beginning of the academic year is doing so in ever-declining numbers, because what they used to queue up for is becoming less available and more costly. And this, of course, is the direct result of the iron hand of government and its agents. Educational opportunity for adults has been uncompromisingly reshaped in an attempt to get it to produce what the Government has decided is required. The public was consulted neither before the ‘reforms’ were set in motion, nor since. The Government has decided what is of public value.

This, then, is public value defined as that which it is believed will give most value for public money. Very large sums of money are spent on education and training, and it is entirely reasonable that governments make strategic decisions about how it is spent.

Eight in Ten, the report on the state of adult learning in colleges of further education in England, published by NIACE in 2005. The title referred to the fact that, at the time, eight in ten of the students enrolled in the FE system were adults. That fact was beginning to change while the report committee was meeting, and it has gone on changing ever since.

Eight in Ten agreed that the key mission of colleges is the provision of vocational education to adults and young people beyond the age of compulsory schooling, but it also emphasised that colleges contribute significantly to the achievement of other educational objectives. It identified three key themes in the work colleges undertake with adults, all central to their mission: access to employability; workforce development; and the creating and sustaining of cultural value. In addition to their economic functions, the report argued, colleges provide learning opportunities: that foster a critical and informed engagement with social, political and moral issues, and thus support the development of a tolerant participative democracy for all citizens and communities; that encourage appreciation and participation in the arts, sport and cultural activities; and that secure the role learning can play in the achievement of public and collective good.

Nobody seriously questions the importance of the development of a highly skilled workforce. What concerns many observers is the impact of Government strategies on much of the rest of adult education, and the radical restructuring of further and adult education. David Blunkett’s much-quoted preface to The Learning Age (1998) – the only part of the Green Paper document that anyone now remembers – was inspirational and holistic in its vision. His remit letter to the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) in 2000 was similarly visionary, noting the ‘major contribution’ learning plays ‘in sustaining a civilised and cohesive society’, in strengthening families and in building stronger neighbourhoods. However, the 2005 skills White Paper had a different emphasis, with a clear shift towards the utilitarian:

Skills are central to achieving our national goals of prosperity and fairness. They are an essential contributor to a successful, wealthcreating economy. They help businesses become more productive and profitable. They help individuals achieve their ambitions for themselves, their families and their communities.

What has changed is the relative importance that is now placed on the objectives of post-compulsory education. Ministers still seek to reassure that lifelong learning remains a key aspiration and they vehemently claim that social justice is as high a priority as economic growth, but these claims are belied by the policies and the resources that support them. Around a million learners have been lost to adult classes in the last two years, because of rising fee levels but also because of a reduced offer in many colleges and centres. There are fewer foreign language classes, fewer ICT courses and fewer students. The shift to a so-called demand-led system in practice means students are actively encouraged to learn as long as they demand what the Government and the LSC are willing to provide: literacy, numeracy or a first ‘full’ level 2 qualification. ( In this context, Level 2 refers to qualifications that are the equivalent of GCSEs (A *C). These include NVQs and BTEC First Diplomas and Certificates. ) Anyone demanding anything else will be paying a good deal more. The new ideologies have shifted massive resource away from adult and community learning to vocational provision, and towards training defined by employers.

(Flint, 2007, pp. 8–11)

This next extract is the two opening paragraphs of the Executive Summary of the Final Prosperity For All in the Global Economy – World Class Skills, otherwise known as the Leitch Review of Skills (Leitch, 2006).

The Leitch Review was tasked in 2004 with considering the UK’s long-term skills needs. The UK is building on economic strength and stability, with 14 years of unbroken growth and the highest employment rate in the G7 (the seven most highly developed countries in the world). Its skills base has improved significantly over the last decade with rising school standards and growth in graduate numbers. Despite this the UK’s skills base remains weak by international standards, holding back productivity, growth and social justice. The Review has found that even if current targets to improve skills are met, the UK’s skills base will still lag behind that of many other comparator countries in 2020. The UK has to run to stand still.

The global economy is changing rapidly, with emerging economies such as India and China growing dramatically, altering UK competitiveness. The population is ageing, technological change and global migration flows are increasing. There is a direct correlation between skills, productivity and employment. Unless the UK can build on reforms to schools, colleges and universities and make its skills base one of its strengths, UK business will find it increasingly difficult to compete. As a result of low skills, the UK risks increasing inequality, deprivation and child poverty, and risks a generation cut off permanently from labour market opportunity. The best form of welfare is to ensure that people can adapt to change. Skills were once a key lever for prosperity and fairness. Skills are now increasingly the key lever. A radical step-change is necessary.

(Leitch, 2006, p. 3)


You may have noticed that both these extracts refer to the importance of skills, although both suggest that acquiring skills may help achieve a variety of important social goals, such as reducing deprivation or inequality. Colin Flint uses the terms lifelong learning and post-compulsory education as well. The phrase lifelong learning would seem to suggest that learning happens across our lifetimes, from when we are very young to the very last stages of our lives. Post-compulsory education refers to all the education that is available after 16 years of age. Flint suggests that the opportunities for lifelong learning and post-compulsory education are disappearing unless they are linked to skills. What seems to be going on is that the government is more interested in certain aspects of learning. The extract from the Leitch Review supports this. Leitch suggests that there are all sorts of ‘risks’ if the skills base is not improved. This extract also highlights how education (or learning) policy is tied up with economic policy.

This connection results from the view that the economy of the UK is just a part of a system that includes other parts of the world. Many of the goods that we buy in the UK come from China, India, Indonesia and many other countries. Currently the UK imports more goods from abroad than it exports. This is part of a worldwide pattern of international trading which is an important aspect of what is referred to as globalisation. Much of UK government policy can be seen as an attempt to respond to the issues caused by globalisation. In order to compete globally, politicians from all political parties have argued that we need to have a skilled workforce. They suggest that only way to compete with countries like China or India is to have people who have skills that enable them to provide high quality services or produce high quality goods.

The need to focus on skills means that some groups of the population become the focus of learning policy. Can you think which groups these might be? The answer is that it is the groups within the population which can make the most use of skills, that is, people who are able to work. This helps to explain why skills that are relevant to work are seen as being most important, while learning that is done for pleasure (like salsa dancing) is seen as unimportant. This helps to explain the decline in the classes which used to be provided by local education authorities and by further education colleges.

You may be wondering where this discussion is taking us. Surely (you may ask) the focus here was to have been on looking at how theory can help you make better sense of your own learning? You may not see how the previous discussion links to theory or how it can help you understand your own learning. In fact you have been exploring the wider national and international context for learning. There is also a theoretical aspect as there are a number of theories which attempt to explain government policy. Let’s start by looking at theories of globalisation.


Take your learning further

Making the decision to study can be a big step, which is why you'll want a trusted University. The Open University has 50 years’ experience delivering flexible learning and 170,000 students are studying with us right now. Take a look at all Open University courses.

If you are new to university level study, find out more about the types of qualifications we offer, including our entry level Access courses and Certificates.

Not ready for University study then browse over 900 free courses on OpenLearn and sign up to our newsletter to hear about new free courses as they are released.

Every year, thousands of students decide to study with The Open University. With over 120 qualifications, we’ve got the right course for you.

Request an Open University prospectus