Education-line Home Page

Lifelong learning - the rural challenge

John Moverley, Chris Atkin and Andrew Mitchell

Paper presented at the F.A.C.E Conference
University of Sunderland, July 1997


Seeking to deliver to adult learners in rural areas poses special challenges. This paper identifies some of the special issues facing would be post-sixteen learners in the rural setting. A number of potential solutions to the key issue of access are discussed - particular focus is the part to be played by increased use of information technology in the home and workplace. Implicit in all of this is the proposition that - in rural areas at least - competition amongst providers may be failing, promoting commercial expansion at the expense of the real access needs of the community. The paper calls for a regional framework with providers working together to satisfy the communities need for post-sixteen education.
Key terms; Access, Out-reach, Distance learning

Lifelong learning - the rural challenge

There is no doubt that education and training played an important rôle in the recent general election campaign. The incoming Labour Government made great play of their ambitious skills targets and the need for improvement on the UK's poor positioning in the world prosperity league. But now, of course, actions will be judged over rhetoric: the Government must deliver its promises. It is the task of all those in education and training to seize the opportunity that a new direction in policy may bring. This paper will focus on the way in which providers of Higher Education within rural communities may participate in the proposed "skills revolution".

For all that 'New Labour' seeks a cultural change in the nature of education and training, there is an implicit recognition of the commercial context within which providers operate. Much of this stems from the paradigm established over 18 years of conservative government. Today, it may be said that Heads of Schools, College and Universities are very much Chief Executives, geared inexorably towards the 3 E's : Effectiveness, Economy and Efficiency. The acceptance of such notions gained credence during the expansion of post-compulsory education during the late eighties and early nineties. This ambitious policy shift was sold to the electorate and education providers on the basis of increased post-sixteen participation, a more widespread achievement of recognised qualifications and national targets for education and training. To date these measures have been successful : the target of one in three school leavers participating in Higher Education was met in 1994, six years ahead of schedule (HEFCE Annual Report 1994); numbers in Further Education have also 'bloomed' over recent years, with further increases promised. However for many in the sector this was at best a 'pyrrhic victory' ; the mechanisms for funding this growth remain under scrutiny and currently require urgent attention to prevent collapse. There are also concerns about quality control and the perceived debasement, rather than improvement, of national standards. A distinction can be drawn between 'expansion' - which may largely be seen as opportunist, demand driven and competitive - and 'access' - which may instead be collaborative, service driven and non-competitive. An understanding of this distinction informs the policy challenge presented by rural areas.

The focus is now shifting increasingly towards the adult learner and the need for lifelong learning. This is especially significant for providers in rural areas where access to education remains the key to participation. In some respects adult participation is already considerable. Part-time Higher Education courses attract a substantial number of adult learners as do a number of full-time courses. In Further Education the same applies, but there is clearly much more that could be achieved.

The White Paper on Rural England, 1995 explicitly referred to the contribution of communications technology in:

"achieving a society committed to the notion of lifelong learning" (p. 18).

Labour has gone further with its pre and post election policy statements, declaring its aim as :

"to create a learning culture under which everyone will enjoy a lifetime's entitlement to learning" (from Labour's Plans for a Skills Revolution p.18).

In a rural policy document it acknowledges :

"the information super highway could also promote continuing education, which will come within the reach of every adult."

(A Working Countryside, April 1995)

As the respective policy documents indicate if we are to extend participation rates amongst adults it will require new approaches to delivery, greater flexibility and more provision for learners to progress at their own pace.

Whilst not a new model, we consider the concept of the milk bottle is appropriate when considering lifetime learning and skills development (see Figure 1). Learning goes on throughout our lives and so it is unlikely that we can ever say that the 'milk bottle' is full for anyone. However, we should strive for this level of attainment. Indeed, training and education for adults is even more important when we consider the changed employment market. There is rarely a job for life now; most of us will need to change our jobs several times with a need to re-skill at each stage. The need for a commitment to lifelong learning is emphasised.

Seeking to deliver to adult learners in rural areas poses special challenges. As always it is important to recognise the heterogeneity of rural areas and in particular the substantial differences that are to be found between so called "accessible" rural areas of the urban fringe and the more remote rural areas elsewhere in the UK. However, all rural areas tend to be characterised by the prevalence of very small firms and high levels of self-employment (The White Paper on Rural England p.31). Another important issue is the growth of new businesses in rural areas, not typical of the traditional land-based sector. Such small businesses often co-exist with a smaller number of very large employing organisations such as the utilities and so on. These latter organisations are large enough to have their own training divisions and indeed to provide much of their own training 'in-house' (hopefully accredited by a college or university). The remaining businesses, the majority of which are very small in nature, suffer the disadvantage that provision of appropriate training by long established providers is often difficult to justify economically in its traditional mode of delivery. Barriers to training immediately come to mind. Research shows that the uptake of training among smaller businesses is limited, not only because there is unlikely to be a member of staff taking a particular responsibility to identify training needs, but also because of the real difficulties in releasing key staff (Prof. A Herrington and Mark Stone University of Plymouth - Conference paper - Lifelong learning for the landbased industries). Providers tend to be further away from businesses in rural areas and when staff are released the opportunity cost to the employer is far larger than might be expected within an urban environment.

It is widely recognised that management training is a particular need for the small business, especially in rural areas where managers are more isolated. However, traditional provision does not attract sufficient learners in many cases. Barriers such as these are likely to become more pronounced over time as the 'free market' forces providers to pass on the true cost of education and training.

What of solutions?

What about distance learning, more work-based training, IT? There is no doubt that each has merit and certainly the more progressive colleges and universities are developing fast in these areas. De Montfort University is pioneering such solutions for the food industry in South Lincolnshire and making use of IT to deliver programmes at a distance direct into the work place. IT should not be considered a panacea (at least not in the short-term); its contribution to the armoury of approaches required in delivering education and training in rural areas is, however, considerable.

As we have observed, the Internet has been widely acclaimed as the new superhighway. However far too often, too many assumptions are being made. Internet services are not currently all that user friendly: such services require investment of money and time to be 'brought on-line'; often information available is not customer led and too often the material could be packaged in an alternative cheaper form. If such IT is really to help it must be interactive and allow users to learn at their own speed and achieve something they need within their vocational context. For many learners the group dynamic and the need to feel a sense of belonging has a tremendous impact on the quality of the learning experience, particularly at the point of entry.

Not all adults are in businesses, many are at home seeking work or perhaps wishing to further their education and skills. Again we must seek flexibility. As we have said IT is one part of a larger solution but may not be available to all. We cannot help thinking that the computer revolution may serve to widen the gap even further between economic groups living in the rural areas, unless access can be guaranteed.

In Lincolnshire 'job buses' have been used as vehicles for training, bringing staff and resources to meet the rural need. This is one of many innovative ways in which access can be increased; a similar venture was undertaken by the Workers Educational Association, achieving much praise for its 'Training on Wheels' project in North Yorkshire which is, according to the Guardian, "a remarkable educational project that reaches out into remote villages", effectively taking the facilities and expertise to the people rather than waiting for applications to drop in (W.E A North Yorkshire District Annual Report p 2-3). Furthermore the B.B.C has just launched a huge campaign to increase IT literacy ("computers don't bite") and Channel 4 is investigating learning being undertaken in 'pubs', which are often a focal point for community life. As Alan Tuckett, the director of the National Institute of Adult Continuing Education, recently observed in The Times :

"Once adults have had a good learning experience, there is no stopping them. Sharing that experience more widely is the challenge"(The Times 16/5/97).

But to achieve this will require co-operation. Many prospective Higher Education adult learners are there because of a journey which started with tentative steps into adult education in the local school or village hall (R Fieldhouse et al 1996). It is in this respect that the Labour Government's recent policy overtures are perhaps most refreshing, for although - as we have already said - there remains an acceptance of the importance of viability and competitiveness for providers, the Government is at least prepared to countenance :

"comments and proposals for about how a local and regional framework could be integrated into the development of national strategies in order to make more effective the carrying through of agreed policy". (Labour's plans for a Skills Revolution p. 18)

Indeed one of the Government's central policies - The University for Industry - envisages "a national drive to bring together businesses and industry, educational institutions, training providers, TEC's and government departments to identify strategic priorities in the development of skills in the workforce" (Labour's plans for a Skills Revolution p. 15)

These proposals have a certain resonance for many providers in rural areas. It has been evident for some time that there may need to be better networking between providers; perhaps with universities adopting a regional rôle and working more closely with other providers to promote the reality of the seamless robe, allowing resources to be available in a more effective way and providing an appropriate quality framework. Implicit in all of this is the proposition that - in rural areas at least - competition amongst providers may well be failing, promoting commercial expansion at the expense of the real access needs of the community. What we need now is sensible strategic planning for the development of regional education and training. (The free market may yet prove to be a formidable obstacle.)

There is a serious challenge to be met ; here, now and ahead. It is important that all of those who live and work in the countryside seize the initiative, taking collective and individual advantage of the opportunities provided, both by the continuing review of national policy and the welcome prospect of a skills revolution.

Further reading

Confederation of (1989) Towards a Skills Revolution : CBI, London
British Industry
Dept of Environment (1995) The White Paper on Rural England : HMSO
DES/DofE (1991) Education and Training for the 21st Century :HMSO
Fieldhouse R et al (1996) A History of Modern British Adult Education : NIACE
Labour Party (1996) A Working Countryside : Labour party media office, London
Labour Party (1996) Labour's Plans for a Skills Revolution : Labour party media office, London
Labour Party (1996) Target 2000 : Labour's Plans for a Lost Generation : Labour party media office, London
Richardson W et al (eds) The Reform of Post-16 education in England and Wales
(1993) Longman, London
Schuller T (ed) (1995) The Changing University : The society for Research into Higher Education and Open University Press
see particularly chapters
Wagner L - A thirty Year Prospective from the Sixties to the Nineties
Rigby G - Funding a Changing System

This document was added to the Education-line database 05 December 1997