Early in February I was invited to speak to the annual Unison union learning reps (ULR) conference: 25 years of Learning – The Power of the ULR. The theme of the session in which I was speaking was ‘Learning for the Future’ – challenging in a context of continuous social, technological and not least, political and policy change. So I chose to reset the exam question and talk about the future of learning, focussing on what I think is wrong today that we may be able to change tomorrow or at least at some point in the future.

In reflecting about this I was reminded of my own belief, as a young child, that the reason it was necessary to go to school for at least 11 years (a terrifying thought for a primary school pupil) was because that was how long it would take to learn everything there was to learn. By that logic, I assumed then, that as we got to discover and know more about our worlds and lives, it would be necessary for children to go to school for even longer, perhaps for the whole of their lives at some point in the future. As it turns out, I maybe wasn’t far wrong.

Just prior to the Unison conference, I had been attending an education strategy forum in an Oxfordshire country house hotel which sounds rather more luxurious than it was. Essentially I was one of a captive audience of a large group of education technology providers, selling their wares. I saw examples of new learning management systems, of applications of AI and VR, uses of robots and a new version of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, which I now see is commonly available through Bing.


Ironically, there was neither Wi-Fi nor phone signal available in the main hall of the venue.

What I wanted to argue, though, is that you can have all the new whizzy technologies you like and they can bring about or be supported by pedagogic change but they cannot change ideology and policy – the things that actually need to change if we are to emancipate learning and use it for shared goals of equity and social mobility. It may be a cliché to say knowledge is power but I believe that equal access to and participation in learning at all levels are fundamental to a fairer society. As Helena Kennedy, in her preface to Learning Works (1997) said:

Education strengthens the ties which bind people, takes the fear out of difference and encourages tolerance. It helps people to see what makes the world tick and the ways in which they, individually and together can make a difference.’

But I know that I am not alone in believing that our education system is fundamentally unfair. The image below has been well-used but it is still a very accurate representation of our education system. We all get tested against the same standards, regardless of our innate abilities and that is what determines our lot in life. And of course, the rules can be changed at will.

Roald Dahl’s autobiographical account in ‘Boy’ of his time at public school highlights the normalised  ghastliness of what was then considered acceptable – the  cruelty, the canings and the awful teaching (which didn’t really matter because you would still get into Oxford or Cambridge). We may have stopped beating learning into children, albeit only relatively recently, but I am still to be convinced that we value different kinds of knowledge, skills and abilities equally and that we teach them effectively.

The Open University was brought into being by a Labour government as a partial response to systemic inequity. At the award of the Charter Geoffrey Crowther, the first Chancellor, remarked that:

The first, and most urgent task before us is to cater for the many thousands of people, fully capable of a higher education, who, for one reason or another, do not get it, or do not get as much of it as they can turn to advantage, or as they discover, sometimes too late, that they need. Only in recent years have we come to realise how many such people there are, and how large are the gaps in educational provision through which they can fall. The existing system, for all its expansion, misses and leaves aside a great unused reservoir of human talent and potential.’

Despite all our efforts, however, those words could still apply today. The catastrophic decline in part time numbers in England may largely be a consequence of funding changes so money is still an issue but time is also a concern– 20% off the job learning in degree apprenticeships sounds great in theory but creates tensions for employers and learners. Add to these the complexity of learning pathways and funding systems, a schooling system which instils in people from an early age a set of beliefs about their own abilities and their place in the world, and a digital divide which serves to further exclude. And on top of that our working lives will be longer and the skills needed for work will be constantly changing.

For me, these challenges are encapsulated in Ivan Illych’s views of what education is actually like and what it should be like. Illych’s ideas have enjoyed a bit of a renaissance with the advent of MOOCs , massive open online course, which many people have argued are disrupting education systems and emancipating learning, making access fairer and giving more opportunities.  I am not so sure.

It is now possible to get a Harvard degree entirely on line, studying OERs for free and paying for assessment and accreditation. It is, of course, much cheaper than attending Harvard for three years and paying the full fees. But I pose this question – as a Wall Street or City employer faced with selecting between a graduate from the former and one from the latter, which is the most likely to get shortlisted?

For real emancipation of learning extending opportunity with technology is necessary but insufficient. It is the infrastructure, the system itself which needs to be future proofed and that needs political will and policy change, with associated funding. We need a system which is simple to navigate, which recognises learning equally wherever or whenever it takes place, we need national and international credit recognition which is universally accepted.

The writer and futurist Alvin Toffler said that ‘The illiterate of the 21st Century are not those who cannot read and write but those who cannot learn, unlearn and re-learn’.

Learning for/in the future is not so much about the ‘what’ and much more about the ‘how, the ‘when’ and the ‘why’.

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