Letter: Seeking a radical approach to lifelong learning

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Sir: Gordon Brown (7 May) is right to call for a radical review of educational support for young people. Claus Moser's priorities ("A blueprint for schools under Labour", 8 May) are right for a sound initial education system. But the radicalism should include a really sharp look at where the constant prolongation of initial education is taking us.

Keeping a bigger and bigger proportion of young people in education risks becoming something of a political virility symbol. It does little to make the distribution of life chances fairer, and imposes huge strains on institutions that are often not well equipped to bear them.

The resources would be better spent in two directions. First, provide real opportunities for young people - especially teenage males - to learn outside educational institutions. A properly structured and staffed national environmental service would be one appropriate initiative, enabling young people to make a genuine contribution to improving the environment while learning skills and exercising responsibility.

Second, massively expand local opportunities for adults to return to education once the motivation to learn is there. Generously resourced FE colleges would be in the forefront here. Anyone who has interviewed or taught adult returners knows how powerful their motivation is, once they have decided that the time is right.

Stuffing more and more young people behind desks may help the unemployment figures in the short term. If there is no genuine pay-off for them, it will not succeed for more than a small minority. A radical approach to lifelong learning means shifting the balance between initial schooling and continuing education, not just blowing the balloon up bigger - and hoping it won't go pop.

Tom Schuller

Director

Centre for Continuing Education

University of Edinburgh

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