Why can't we all go back to school?

Brandon Lee created his own second chance. But he should not have had to lie in order to claim it
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The Independent Online
When Brandon Lee/Brian MacKinnon took advantage of his youthful visage and his acting talent to enrol as a fifth-former at Bearsden Academy for the second time around, he probably didn't bank on becoming a minor celebrity. But that is what he has become: an Ealing comedy-ish icon of mild duplicity, trying desperately to get into school when many teenagers are doing their best to get out.

His motives remain mysterious. Contrary to first reports, he was not exactly a low achiever first time round. But whatever his intent, the episode is symbolic of how the rules on how we order our progression through life - education, work, family and retirement - are being rewritten.

Part of the reason is simply that people are healthier and living longer than ever before. Motherhood is a good example (albeit not one that should affect Brandon Lee). Where we once had a fixed period for having children, childbearing is increasingly spread into the late forties, and even the fifties, thanks to medical technology. In the past decade alone there has been a 33 per cent increase in the number of women having children in their forties.

The same shift is happening in education. More and more adults are choosing to return to education (and without changing their names): 68 per cent of students in further education are now over 21. Almost half the 1.5 million student enrolments in 1994 were mature students, and the University of the Third Age, which provides courses for pensioners, boasts 48,000 members nationwide, with more old people seeing their twilight years as an opportunity for learning and self-discovery.

Some of these changes are forced by necessity. The pace of change in the labour market means that there is a constant need for workers to improve and renew their skills. One recent report found that nearly two in three workers said the level of skills required for their jobs had increased in the past five years. This need for constant "upskilling" in the labour market means that more and more workers will need to think at some point in their lives about returning to the classroom, even if they don't do it in quite the style of our contemporary Peter Pan.

There are also signs that young people are waking up to this. Over the past six months I have gone around the country meeting young people and talking to them about their hopes and fears. I have been struck by how bitterly people now working in factories with minimal skills regret leaving school in haste, and how so many of them would relish the chance to start all over again. To them Brandon Lee might be an appropriate cult figure - a sign of just what can happen when you freeze the frame, rewind and go back over the errors of your ways.

But it goes without saying how unlikely this is. The problem in Britain is that we are not yet geared up to giving people second chances. Our second-chance industry is feeble, underdeveloped. Although there are more people going to adult education or returning to university as mature students, we still have an essentially linear approach to education.

We are not offering lifelong learning in ways that are increasingly necessary and which by all accounts many people themselves seem to desire. Sir Geoffrey Holland, an expert on education and training, has proposed "individual training accounts" which would create a compulsion on employers to contribute to and mobilise a joint commitment to lifelong learning. These have some attractions, although their weakness is that they would require a huge bureaucracy. But even they could only be a starting point.

Other governments have gone a lot further in emphasising time off work for training and education, and giving such rights legal backing. In 1985 Belgium established the right to paid educational leave, under which an employee can pursue vocational training during normal working hours for up to 240 hours a year. France offers a number of different leaves of absence and some German states provide for educational leave lasting from 5 to 12 years!

Belgium and France have also been the first countries to introduce laws on unpaid sabbaticals, lasting up to 12 months in Belgium and 11 in France. Here, by contrast, sabbaticals are only really available for a few people in education, or in the occasional paternalistic firm such as John Lewis. And more often than not they are seen as a preparation for retirement or a pay-off for good service, rather than being central to career development.

The problem doesn't stop at the lack of an infrastructure for lifelong learning and restarts. The additional fear is that many people's cultural prejudices won't have kept pace with these changes. Indeed, ageism is fast becoming the "equal opportunities" issue of the Nineties. We can only speculate that Brandon Lee felt this way himself - concerned that at 32 it was too late for him to be able to secure a place in medical school and fulfil his dream of becoming a doctor.

Nor is he alone in feeling that time is against him. In my discussion groups I have been struck by the extent to which young thirtysomethings feel "long in the tooth" and lament the shortage of people above 40 in managerial posts in their organisations. No wonder campaigners are calling for laws to prevent discrimination by age.

It is precisely because so many people want to break down the old rules on age that Brandon Lee has caught our imagination as a Peter Pan, someone who defies the ageing process in a spectacularly successful way. But he is also a success story in another way: a symbol of someone who has battled against the odds in a society that doesn't easily give people second chances. Time will tell if the informal age bar operating in many medical schools will deprive him of the second chance he created for himself.

In the meantime, let's hope Brandon's mother recovers from the shock and realises that far from being "ashamed and humiliated", she should probably be rather proud of him. After all, to break the law to rob a bank is one thing. To break the law in pursuit of a degree which will be the passport into a career that serves the general public is quite another.

None of this excuses Brian MacKinnon for being deceitful. But what a wonderful deceit it was, and I bet he had a lot of fun in the process, explaining away his more mature looks as the product of "early ageing".