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Lifelong learning

The phrase 'lifelong learning' is ubiquitous but what does it actually mean? Does it mean the same thing to all people, and where did the concept originate? This section will help you explore some of the underlying concepts and draw your own conclusions as to whether or not it is a useful notion.

'The desire to learn from life itself and to change the conditions of life so that others may learn as well is a major achievement in education'. Dewey, J. (1916) ‘Democracy and Education’, Macmillan Company.

Lifelong learning (along with ideas such as the learning society) has become popular with politicians and policymakers in a number of countries. What is it and how is it relevant to guidance?

Recent developments indicate that career guidance is embedded in European lifelong learning policy, which in turn provides a valuable framework for considering the place of guidance in UK lifelong learning policy.

'Learning is the key to prosperity - for each of us as individuals, as well as for the nation as a whole... learning throughout life will build human capital by encouraging the acquisition of knowledge and skills and emphasising creativity and imagination. The fostering of an enquiring mind and the love of learning are essential to our future success.' (Blunkett, Foreword DFEE 1998:1). The CBI (1989) also argued that raised skills levels are needed to increase international competitiveness commenting 'a greater self-development ethic is needed which builds on entitlements and responsibilities' (p21). However, lifelong learning is also regarded as a panacea for societal ills, part of a more inclusive vision and a vehicle for personal empowerment. Fryer (1997:12) states: 'Lifelong learning can help people seize new opportunities, engage critically with change and shape their worlds by asserting some ownership and direction over their own lives, in work and beyond.' The rhetoric sounds convincing. However, might it be that in an environment where participation in learning is seen as a pre-requisite for personal achievement, there is an associated danger of an emerging victim blaming culture, whereby those who do not participate in learning are seen as responsible for their fate? So - who are the beneficiaries and the losers?


CBI (1989) Towards a Skills Revolution, London: Confederation of British Industry.
DFEE (1998) The Learning Age, Green Paper CM3790, London: The Stationery Office Ltd.
Fryer (1997) Learning for the Twenty First Century National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning.
UNESCO - two reports concerned with the contemporary challenges in education

In the past three decades there have been two major landmark reports offering visions of emerging challenges in education from UNESCO:

The first one, ' Learning to Be', was prepared in 1973 by a commission under the chairmanship of Edgar Faure. This report was extensively discussed and debated the world over and it shaped the education discourse of the seventies and eighties.
Its successor is the report ' Learning: The Treasure Within' , prepared by the International Commission on Education for the Twenty-first Century under the chairmanship of Jacques Delors (1996). The report surveys the emerging world and the sweeping technological, economic and social change and the multiple tensions arising from this shift. It neatly balances the economic, cultural and social aspects of education.
The European Commission lays great emphasis on life-long learning and commended that education in the future should be based on four pillars:

learning to know,
learning to do,
learning to be, and
learning to live together.
Of these, the pillar: learning to be emerges as a 'timeless priority'.

This implies a new vision of education that goes beyond an instrumental view of education to an emphasis on the full development of potentialities such as memory, reasoning, aesthetics, imagination and communication skills as well as physical capabilities.

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights on education:

One other relevant definition comes from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Article 26 (2): Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.

The European Commission on lifelong learning:

The European Commission Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a reality defines lifelong learning as: 'all learning activity undertaken throughout life, with the aim of improving knowledge, skills and competence, within a personal, civic, social and/or employment-related perspective'.

In summary, lifelong learning is about:

acquiring and updating all kinds of abilities, interests, knowledge and qualifications from the pre-school years to post-retirement;
valuing all forms of learning, including: formal learning.
This means that:

learning opportunities should be available to all citizens on an ongoing basis;
lifelong learning is also about providing "second chances" to update basic skills and also offering learning opportunities at more advanced levels;
formal systems of provision need to become much more open and flexible, so that such opportunities can truly be tailored to the needs of the learner, or indeed the potential learner.
The European Commission - A Memorandum on Lifelong Learning

Following the Lisbon and Feira European Councils' mandate to implement lifelong learning, the European Commission published a staff working paper in 2000: 'A Memorandum on Lifelong Learning'. The paper's purpose was "to launch a European-wide debate on a comprehensive strategy for implementing lifelong learning at individual and institutional levels, and in all spheres of private and public life". The paper proposes two equally important aims: Promoting active citizenship and Promoting employability. There are 6 key messages in the paper: New basic skills for all; More investment in human resources; Innovation in teaching and learning; Valuing learning; Rethinking guidance and counselling; Bringing learning closer to home.

Key Message 5 calls for a new approach which envisages guidance as a continuously accessible service to all, stating that "the practitioner's task is to accompany individuals on their journey through life, releasing motivation, providing relevant information and facilitating decision making".

The future role of guidance and counselling professionals is seen as a brokerage activity with the client's interests at the forefront. It reasons that guidance and counselling services have to move towards a more 'holistic' style of provision, "able to address a variety of needs and demands and a variety of publics".

This is interesting in the light of the development of the personal adviser role within the Connexions Service in England but it emphasises that practitioners must know the profile of the labour market and employers' needs as well as the personal and social circumstances of clients.

Clearly career guidance and counselling are seen as an integral element of a strategy to support and encourage lifelong learning.

Since the publication of the Memorandum, the Commission has been actively promoting and developing career guidance policy through a series of papers and activities. These include:

Publishing 'Making a European Area of Lifelong Learning a Reality', November 2001 – a report on a consultation based on the Memorandum on Lifelong Learning;
Establishing the Lifelong Guidance Expert Group that is working to support the follow-up to the objectives set by the Lisbon meeting of the European Council;
Carrying out surveys of career guidance in Europe through the European Training Foundation and CEDEFOP, in parallel with the OECD and World Bank Surveys;
Developing a set of quality guidelines for career guidance across Europe: Improving lifelong
guidance policies and systems: using common European reference tools published by CEDEFOP in 2005.
The latest stage in the process of recognising career guidance as an integral element of a lifelong learning strategy is a proposal that the European Education Council should adopt a Resolution on Guidance in 2004. The background paper "Towards a Council Resolution on Guidance" gives a powerful presentation of where career guidance should sit within a lifelong learning policy. The current paper is a draft and is currently being developed further. Key points include:

A recognition that "policy objectives for guidance are poorly defined, poorly articulated and poorly communicated in most countries"
That "forums in which government and non-government stakeholders can communicate and debate policy issues are ill-developed and that major gaps exist in policies and systems for guidance provision in Europe, in particular for VET participants and for employed people"
That the Commission looks to guidance provision to support in tackling inadequate occupational mobility low geographic mobility, fragmentation of information and lack of transparency of job opportunities.
The paper concludes by listing some possible recommendations that might be included in an EU Council Resolution on guidance.

The above were some of the inputs into a subsequent discussion amongst different members of the guidance community about different aspects of lifelong learning.

Comment 1: Practitioner observation - does the concept of 'lifelong learning' actually mean anything?

When I was a student studying for my Diploma in Careers Guidance (not so very long ago) we were despatched on placement and charged with gaining views on the relevance of the notion of Lifelong Learning to Careers Practitioners. In my naive enthusiasm I asked one seasoned Careers Adviser what she made of the phrase. She said: 'How would I react to the notion of lifelong learning? I'd look at you blankly and stare.' So:

What definitions for Lifelong Learning exist?
Are the definitions that people have encountered helpful?
Comment 2: Which definitions count?

All definitions are valid for guidance workers who need support to elicit from clients ALL learning whether accredited or none accredited and whether in achieved in education, the workplace or the community. Adults usually need to improve their skills to self-promote their skills and experiences to potential employers or education providers.

Comment 3: What about the employer perspective?

The introduction of a Lifelong Learning Sector Skills Council indicates that more emphasis in the future is likely to be placed on the employers’ perspective. Meanwhile, it is essential in my view that guidance workers continue to support clients to identify and value all their skills and experiences however these are obtained. Self-awareness and self-promotion remain key to finding the right learning opportunities and obtaining work

Comment 4: Are we talking lifelong learning or lifelong education?

The power of spin is so strong that it is easy to endorse the notion of lifelong learning without really attending to what that might mean. It could be argued that when successive governments talk about lifelong learning that they are really referring to lifelong education. That is, the acquisition of the skills that are needed to meet the demands of employers and the economy.

Is the distinction between learning (for the self, critical engagement with the world, personal fulfilment) and education (skills acquisition linked to employment or future employability) is a real one?
If not why not?
Where is the common interest?
Is this an issue for client-centred guidance? Or is that being over precious and pretentious in the face of pragmatism?

Comment 5: Whose needs come first - a familiar ethical dilemma for guidance workers?

Think there is an important distinction between learning that addresses an up-skilling/re-skilling agenda and learning for a broader citizenship/social justice agenda. This highlights a familiar, ethical dilemma for guidance workers who (for at least the past 3 decades) have had to juggle pressures to service vacancies in employment/training and education with their own personal/professional commitment to delivering client-centred guidance - which may or may not include entry/re-entry to the employment via education/training.

The discussion then moved on to factors affecting (non)participation in adult learning, with contributors supporting their arguments with a range of resources which are indicated within the text.

Comment 6: Are individuals responsible for their own learning?

Although individuals seem to be charged with responsibility for taking up learning, the needs are those of the wider economy. Might it be that in an environment where participation in learning is seen as a pre-requisite for personal achievement, there is an associated danger of an emerging victim blaming culture? If it is argued that ongoing engagement in learning is necessary to remain employed in a constantly shifting labour market, and that this should be the responsibility of the individual, then it might be but a small step to depicting the unemployed as an undeserving poor. Those who are unwilling to learn may be deemed to have failed to participate as full stake holders in society and so held be somehow responsible for their fate. This despite the fact that many of the desired learning objectives are dictated by employers (skills shortages) rather than identified and expressed by individuals. The evidence demonstrates a widening divide between the learning rich and the learning poor. In such a context uncritical acceptance and promotion of the notion of lifelong learning might in fact disadvantage the most vulnerable of client groups, by creating an ever escalating credentialist treadmill which moves ever further from the reach of people who for whatever reason have not had positive experiences in early compulsory education.

Comment 7: There are policy drivers but individual benefits too

Clearly there are economic policy drivers at work. For example, there was enough support and interest in this issue that 1996 was declared European Year for Lifelong Learning. The idea of a European Year on the theme of education was launched in the European Commission's White Paper on "Growth, Competitiveness, Employment" (1993). The objective was to create awareness and public debate on how education and training systems in Europe need to adapt to meet the challenges of the 21st Century, and to bring home to individuals the learning opportunities which can bring greater fulfilment to both their personal and their working lives.

Lifelong learning concerns everyone:

the school-goer (even the pre-school toddler!)the person who wants to acquire new skills to get ahead in their job
the unemployed person who wants to improve their employment prospects
the retired person who always wanted to learn pottery-making or Japanese but never had the time…
We all need to change the way we have traditionally viewed education and training to face new challenges - the exponential growth in the knowledge available to mankind, the virtually limitless access to that knowledge available through modern technology, the need to ensure that unequal access to it does not lead to new forms of social exclusion.

It is no longer realistic to think in terms of education, working life and retirement as successive phases of life, as knowledge acquired in the early years becomes obsolete at an accelerating rate. The concept of lifelong learning, by promoting education and training throughout the life cycle, opens up new prospects for the shaping and conduct of people's lives, and for the way they manage both their work and their leisure.” Questions, however, arise over skill demands stemming from labour market forces and needs of the state. Are these always to the detriment of the individual?

Results from the National Adult Learning Survey (NALS) 2001 indicate this is not necessarily the case. Key findings show that:

In 1997, 26 % of adults had not taken part in learning. By 2001 this number had dropped to 24 % of the respondents (the source for the 26 per cent figure is not given)
44% of the non-learners had a desire for more learning, but various economic and social barriers blocked their participation. However, improved job chances were the main incentives to learning provided by this group (17% of those who responded).
The majority of respondents started learning for job related reasons and believed their work had benefited from vocational learning in many different ways, from increased competence in one’s job to more higher job satisfaction
Wider motivators and benefits, such as increased confidence, self-esteem and better social life, were also mentioned by many respondents and were particularly important for certain groups such as older people and those not in paid employment.
Therefore one could conclude that yes, there are elaborate policy machines at work in the area of lifelong learning; with the desire for healthy and highly skilled economies and building quality of life are just two of the issues intertwined within this area.

Professional experience in the field of lifelong learning leads me to the view that people come into this conscious process (and I favour the idea that lifelong learning is connected to a conscious, reflective, self-development process) when they are truly ready. Outside forces can ‘push’ them onto a lifelong learning continuum but from observation, there must be a level of ‘pull’ felt personally by the individual for them to productively engage with the process. Although ‘push’ factors such as policies and organisational demands can assist in focusing institutions and individuals towards particular policy agendas, I do believe that until an individual consciously recognises the internal ‘pull’ factors, no matter what stage they are at in their life, they appear to be content not to engage. So - yes, the lifelong learning agenda is part of a policy driver which primarily focuses on a healthy economy. However, to just accept this statement without acknowledging the (usually) positive impact on the individual is a very limited picture of a complex and highly dynamic phenomena.

Comment 8: Participation is strongly linked to an individual's integration into community life

Why do the people who would benefit most from participation in lifelong learning not form the main participatory group? Perhaps the answer lies in view that education is about developing opportunities for the individual and not about changing the social position of those who are unengaged either in the labour force or in economically beneficial learning? This was a view expressed at the SCUTREA Conference by Benn (1997). This has resulted in an education system that favours a self-directed action of access resulting in division, and a barrier to learning through self-selection. Other than some highly generalised examples, education is not targeted at those adults for whom it would render most benefit. Arguably lifelong learning is therefore not addressing the known barriers to participation (unemployment, gender, race, age, poverty and ill-health).

Participation is strongly linked to an individual’s integration into community life. Recognisable factors to participation are an individuals social and community involvement. Formal participation in education is related to social and occupational status - which lead to networks and awareness 'ad infinitum'. Gooderham (1993) argues that lifelong learning in the UK is the domain of the middle classes. Only those people who can identify their place in the structure of society engage with lifelong learning. Career guidance responds only to those adults who are motivated to access it. Community based work stops short of advisers making themselves available in local community centres (or similar such venues) at specific times. Thus, a self-perpetuating cycle remains in that career guidance is only addressing the needs of those who are motivated to engage, it is not tackling the needs of those who might benefit most! So, is career guidance the property of the middle (or the enlightened) classes? Be interested in alternate views


Benn R. (1997) Participation in adult education: breaking boundaries or deepening inequalities? at: 27th Annual SCUTREA Conference, 1997. In paper presented by Roseanne Benn, University of Exeter.
Gooderham, P (1993) A conceptual framework of sociological perspectives on the pursuit by adults of access to higher education. International Journal of Lifelong Education, 12(1), 27-39
Fieldhouse, R (1985) Conformity and contradiction in English Responsible Body adult education. Studied in the Education of Adults, 17 (1) 121-134.
Comment 9: Research evidence on barriers and non-participation in learning

This could be a real problem. What does other evidence say? Sargant (2000) analysing a NIACE survey of over 5000 adults showed considerable inequalities in participation in learning, with the least likely to have engaged in current or recent learning being:

Older individuals - participation reduces significantly with age, with, for example 41% of those aged between 45-54 participating in learning compared to 70% of 20-24 year olds.
The economically inactive - with 30% participating compared to 50% of those in jobs. Skilled, semi and unskilled working class - with around 30% participating compared to 51% of the lower middle class.
Those who finished their initial full-time education at the earliest age - with less than 20% participating compared to 58% of those who completed their full time education aged over 18.
On the other hand, Sargant (2000) identified the key barriers that resulted in non-participation in learning as:

Not interested/ don’t want to - 27% (attitudinal)
Work / other time pressures - 17% (physical and material)
Too old / ill / disabled - 15% (physical and material)
Childcare / caring responsibilities - 8% (physical and material)
Cost - 7% (structural).
So there does seem to be a real problem here - indeed given the attitudinal barrier, then just dealing with supply (or provision) issues is likely to be insufficient. NACETT (2000) also identified a number of barriers to increasing both the overall skills and qualifications of the workforce and reducing the inequalities in learning participation of adults. It concluded that adults face barriers such as lack of finance, lack of time and early unhappy learning experiences. Hillage et al (2000) thought that individuals who were seen as ‘non-learners’ could be split into two different groups:

Individuals that would like to undertake learning but are unable to do so because of external barriers;
Those that do not want to engage in learning, through lack of confidence, motivation and disaffection.
It may be therefore that these two groups need very different types of support and guidance?

Hillage et al. (2000) further believed that the barriers to learning could be categorised as:

Physical and material - e.g. finance and time
Structural - around the way education and training is provided
Attitudinal - including confidence and motivation.

Hillage, J., Uden, T., Aldridge, F. and Eccles, J. (2000) Adult Learning In England: A Review. Brighton: Institute of Employment Studies.
National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets (2000) Aiming Higher: NACETT’s Report on the National Learning Targets for England and advice on the Targets beyond 2002. Sheffield: National Advisory Council for Education and Training Targets.
Sargant, N. (2000) The Learning Divide Revisited: A Report of the Findings of a UK-Wide Survey on Adult Participation in Education and Learning. Leicester: National Institute of Adult Continuing Education.
Comment 10: Barriers to learning in distance education

Galusha in Barriers to Learning in Distance Education describes the utmost need to understand fully the associated difficulties adults have when accessing - in this case - distance learning. For example, citing Kerka, (1986) 'knowing (participants) personal characteristics is an important aspect of and strategies.' Which may implicate the need for career advisers not just to provide the guidance then run! but to engage with that individual for a proportion of that person's time within learning. Galusha uses the research of Sheets (1992) to illustrate that:

80% of adults accessing distance learning are already in employment and
over 70% are female and
most of these have developed study habits.
So it would seem obvious that there are significant issues that are potential barriers to learning that apply specifically to unemployed males. Equally, when employed males do access learning, if they are employed in manual trades, the drop-off from courses is at 50% higher then the overall rate (Cookson, 1989). Just making career advice available is not therefore the answer!

There are other issues Galusha refers to such as the difficulties of applying learning skills if one has not been in learning for some time, issues of self-evaluation when there is nothing (know one)! to measure oneself against, use of technology (and the fear of therein), and others.

The main point is one that may yet actually manifest itself within the new operating arrangements for IAG networks. Clearly targeting needs to introduced otherwise access will only come from the motivated. Secondly, closer working links with other agencies concerned with the same issues relating to barriers to learning and participation in the labour market might also include the need for career advisers to be more than 'one-hit wonders', but to support adult learners (particularly those within the identified area above) through a proportion of their time in learning.

Career guidance does have a place here, however, it needs to be modified to accept that targeting services will mean more than just being seen to be available! The CBI forecast a shortfall of 1M jobs not being filled by adults within the next few years because of a lack of skills. If our economy is to remain competitive then this gap needs to be plugged. Career advisers may even need to consider renaming themselves as 'Career Strategists' or 'Career Development Mentors' as this may seem more appropriate to the role I suggest they need to take as 'it does exactly what it says on the tin'!!!