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Include me out: critique and contradiction in thinking about social exclusion and lifelong learning

Paul Armstrong. Birkbeck College, University of London, UK

Paper presented at SCUTREA, 30th Annual Conference, 3-5 July 2000, University of Nottingham


The twin notions of social exclusion and inclusion have emerged as strong policy-leading concepts to take the world into the new millennium. What is interesting about the concepts is that both are global and consensual. Like the notion of community, ideas of inclusion, cohesion, integration are warm and inviting; whereas social exclusion has negative connotations. But wherever there is a forming degree of consensus, especially on a global scale, there also needs to be critique.

Postmodernism has made us aware of the need to be constantly vigilant about consensus. Modernity began by inviting us to question old values, and critique tradition; yet, to a large extent, the old social order is sustained. Social injustice continues, class differences remain, poverty persists. Reason as emancipation has turned out to be a myth. In conducting a critique to learn the truth through reason, what is worth sustaining is neither truth nor reason, but the critique itself. Truth changes and a reason is but a tool – it is continuous critique that keeps pace with change, diversity, complexity and contradiction.

This paper will critique the notion of social exclusion and inclusion. It will argue that inclusion is not the same as non-exclusion.

'Joined up' strategies for 'joined up' problems

The background to this paper is one in which the British Government are prioritising the reduction or, even more ambitiously, the elimination of social exclusion and increasing social inclusion. The prevailing discourse around social exclusion reflects a set of views about those who are disadvantaged, suffering from poverty, poor housing and health, family breakdown, unemployment, criminal environments, limited life chances, and the barriers that prevent their social integration. Social exclusion is the result of a combination of linked problems and can affect both individuals and communities. The causes are multiple and complex, and therefore need to be tackled in a holistic way, rather than each being seen as separate and unrelated. It requires what the government call 'joined up' solutions. This means that government departments, local authority services, public, private and voluntary health and social care organisations must work together in partnership to tackle social exclusion.

The recognition of social exclusion is by no means new, as Preece's (1999) study shows, through the use of life history interviews with those who have been excluded. The idea has a strong European and global influence. Throughout the 1990s, the European Commission and other bodies including the World Health Organisation, and UNESCO's Management of Social Transformation programme have been built around the idea of reducing social exclusion and increasing social cohesion. In Europe, the member states have been concerned about the impact of persistent poverty and unemployment on individuals, families and communities that experience social exclusion, and the 'resulting risk of social explosion' (see Centre for Educational Research and Innovation, 1999). Poverty and exclusion have been seen as the 'inevitable' consequence of economic growth and development. Now, economic growth requires social and cultural regeneration. The European Assembly in its Recommendation 1355 (1998) asserts that social exclusion 'offends against human dignity and denies people their fundamental human rights' and leads, in conjunction with social and economic instability, to marginalisation and deepening inequalities, which threaten the stability of democracy.

In the past, notions of social exclusion have been linked to poverty and unemployment. Successive Tory Governments in Britain had refused to admit that poverty persists in the UK, and consequently there is no official poverty line. However, the New Policy Institute has produced some key indicators of poverty and social exclusion. These include: living in a household where no adults are working; living in households with below half the average income; where there is a lone parent; pupils gaining no GCSE grade C or above; children of divorced parents; births to girls conceiving under-16; and children in young offender institutions.

Poverty has the effect of excluding people from participating fully in society. Living in a disadvantaged area will affect the life chances of its residents. As a result of the widening gap between rich and poor in the UK, many families on low incomes are concentrated in public housing estates, with few options to move on.

But of course the issues are not just to do with poverty and unemployment. A good deal of recent discussion has focused on the fact that some groups are socially excluded through lack of access to information and technology in what is supposedly the Information and Communications Age. Issues still arise for those people with disabilities, those who are older or younger, those in care, those from ethnic minority groups or refugee communities, and those who are gay.

Against this backcloth, the new Labour Government established the Social Exclusion Unit within the Cabinet Office in December 1997. Its remit is to help improve government action to reduce social exclusion by producing 'joined up solutions to joined up problems'. Most of its work is in the form of specific projects (including education, training and lifelong learning) which strategically seek to reduce social exclusion.

Social exclusion as myth

Those of us that make our living from lifelong learning should be grateful that we are now in the mainstream. For many of us this is the first time we have experienced being in 'the right place at the right time'. For twenty years or more, we have been striving to defend the liberal adult education, social purpose tradition against the onslaught of rightwing, market-driven, economic instrumentalism. The restoration of a Labour government on the mandate of 'education, education, education' has given all of us engaged in education and training a sense of significance, and some have responded with vigour (Hammond, 1997; Notley and Jones, 1999).

Even in that context we need to raise critical questions about government education policies and the role of lifelong learning in reducing social exclusion. The emphasis on 'joined up thinking' at least recognises the complexities of social and cultural life, and moves us away from over-simplistic notions about causes of poverty, unemployment, racism and other forms of discrimination. However, to identify education as the key to exclusion policies and their implementation, it may be argued, is akin to previous governments' attribution of 'blame' on teachers and education systems for unemployment and the supposed 'skills shortage'. The direct relationship between education and employment has always been problematic. Whilst there is inevitably some relationship between education and the economy, it has never been a simple causal one. There is a whole range of other variables that enter the equation.

We need to be aware of making over-simplistic assumptions. The previous time there was a strong policy push on education and learning was in the 1960s. Social policy was leaning heavily on education to 'solve' social problems. This was reflected in British educational policies at the time. For example, the Newsom Report (1963) observed that there was considerable 'unrealised talent' among those 'whose potential is masked by inadequate powers of speech and the limitations of home background'. It therefore recommended extending the length of time children spend at school, with a curriculum more relevant for preparation for adult life, including a greater degree of vocationalism. The report adds that 'schools in slums ... require special consideration if they are to have a fair chance of making the best of their pupils'. Schools in these areas needed, it was stated, better quality teachers able to cope with the 'social work' elements of teaching within an environment of poverty, ill-health and delinquency. The Robbins Report (1963) focused on the expansion of the higher education sector and its curricula, sharing the same view that the limitations of educational achievement are not genetic but social. The white paper on the reorganisation of secondary schooling to make it comprehensive was introduced in 1965, to move away from selection and inequality in the existing tripartite structure. The Plowden Report (1967) on primary schooling began by recognising the 'power of the environment on the school and the school upon the environment'. There were 'deprived' neighbourhoods and communities in need of an unequal share of the resources to help them improve – 'educational priority areas'. The Russell Report (1970) recognised that within communities there 'exists en enormous reservoir of human and material resources' and with a 'modest investment' in adult education could 'release these resources ... for the benefit of individuals and good of society'.

It is not the purpose of this paper to undertake a comparison between social and educational policies of the 1960s and those at the end of the century, but it is worth reflecting on the similarity of the underlying values, as reflected in the language of 'deprivation' and 'disadvantage'. Admittedly, 'social exclusion' was not a term to be found at the time but its essential meaning was there in the rhetoric of the policy and government documents. In the late 1990s we have a similar range of reports and white papers, encompassing the need for changes in all stages and phases of education throughout life, from early learning (Sure Start) through schools, further education and training (Learning to Succeed) and higher education (Dearing Report). Adult education has not been given specific attention, but is included in the broader context of lifelong learning (The Learning Age).

By the end of the 1960s sociologists of education, including Basil Bernstein, were concerned about the weight of influence being placed on education. In a seminal article, Bernstein (1970) argued that 'education cannot compensate for society'. The notion of compensatory education was dominant in the United States at the time, with a particular emphasis on extending early years education. Bernstein was aware of Project Headstart, with its large-scale research programme, as well as many other interventionist and enrichment programmes for pre-school children. But the first concern about compensatory education raised by Bernstein was whether the early years are as significant as the policymakers would have us believe. Those engaged in the education of adults are generally optimistic about the benefits of lifelong learning and we would most certainly agree that 'it would be fool hardy indeed to write off the post-seven-years-of-age educational experience as having little influence' (Bernstein, 1970; 345). There was little research evidence that would demonstrate convincingly that early learning is an investment, although long after Bernstein made this point, some of the evidence emanating from Project Headstart, did suggest that pre-school education had some benefits in contributing to the reduction of a range of social and health problems.

Bernstein was worried that idea of compensatory education could not be validly applied to children who have not, in the first place, been offered an adequate education environment. He was also concerned that compensatory education would be diversionary, and deflect attention from the inadequacies of the then current school system.

The same concern can be made about 'social exclusion'. There is an argument that the use of this phrase conceals the underpinning problem of poverty. Through 'joined up solutions', the stress on multi-dimensionality with particular emphasis on learning obscures that for many people deemed to be socially excluded, the fundamental problem is poverty, not education. Inequalities in the job market, not only in terms of getting into the employment market, but getting a well paid job with opportunities for career development, may or may not be a factor of prior achievements in learning, but the determinants of prior achievement include poverty. Given the fixation of the government on integrating the socially excluded into the labour market, will the focus on learning be able to break the 'cycle of exclusion'? Or would an economic solution be both more direct and more likely to succeed? The rhetoric on social exclusion tends to give the impression that it can be 'solved' through improved techniques of governance and service delivery (Willis, 1999). Such a view implicitly denies that exclusion and inequality are generated by the economic mode of production.

Bernstein was very concerned that compensatory education reflected a lack in individuals, families, and communities, and not in the social and economic structure itself. This is what he said some 30 years ago:

It follows ... that the school has to compensate for something which is missing in the family, and the children are looked at as deficit systems. If only the parents were interested in the goodies we offer, if only they were like middle-class parents, then we could do our job.' (Bernstein, 1970; 345)

Bernstein stated that 'cultural deprivation' and 'linguistic deprivation' are powerful, but sad, labels:

If children are labelled 'culturally deprived', then it follows that the parents are inadequate; the spontaneous realisations of their culture, its images and symbolic representations, are of reduced value and significance. Teachers will have lower expectations of the children, which the children will undoubtedly fulfil. All that informs the child, that gives meaning and purpose to him (sic) outside of the school, ceases to be valid or accorded significance and opportunity for enhancement within the school'. (Bernstein, 1970; 345)

This reflects the growing interest in what became known as the 'new' sociology of education, as well as capturing the essence of the view being put forward here with regards to the idea of social exclusion. The focus on labelling, and the power of some to create the label, and to make the label stick was an early focus of the neo-Marxist analysis of the role of education in sustaining and reproducing capitalism. Bernstein (1977) went on to analyse education as social and cultural reproduction of capitalism, a theme picked up and developed by a multitude of other Marxist sociologists of education. This theoretical framework would not have allowed 'social exclusion' to deflect attention from its underlying economic basis (Byrne, 1999; Gough and Olofsson eds. 1999). Moreover, the critique of cultural deprivation as a 'myth' is also worth revisiting. Keddie (1973) reminded us that 'one of pervasive uses has been as an explanation of failure at school among children of various ethnic and social class groups', and the very institutionalisation of the concept is itself discriminating and putting people from these communities at a disadvantage. She said that the term obscures the

culture these families and their children can be deprived, since no group can be deprived of its own culture. It appears therefore that the term becomes a euphemism for saying that working class and ethnic groups have cultures which are at least dissonant with, if not inferior to, the 'mainstream' culture of the society at large. Culturally deprived children, then, come from homes where mainstream values do not prevail and are therefore less 'educable' than other children. (Keddie, 1973; 8)

Let's now substitute for 'cultural deprivation', 'social exclusion'. In The Learning Age (1998) and the two Fryer Committee Reports (1997, 1999), one of the policy intentions is to create a culture of learning. In the first Fryer Committee Report (1997), the need for a culture change is presented because of a whole range of factors including widening inequalities, increasing poverty and increasing social exclusion and disaffection. In this new culture, lifelong learning will enable 'competing values to be reviewed, their relevance for society today and tomorrow to be assessed and newly emerging values can be transmitted' (Fryer, 1997, para. 2.33). The Committee recognised that 'lifelong learning can change people's lives, even transform them and that promise needs to be encapsulated in a learning culture for all' (para. 3.4), and

A learning culture ... will extend to all kinds and varieties of homes and families, to place of paid employment, to voluntary and community settings, and to the realism of leisure, culture, creation and the arts ... making lifelong learning for all normal ...' (para. 4.4).

What will this learning culture do? It will 'support and promote both individual and collective well being and achievement ... it will foster people's creativity, strengthen citizenship and contribute to economic success of the country as a whole, for business, for communities and for individuals and their families' (para. 4.7). At the same time it will 'challenge prejudice in all its forms, enhance tolerance and underpin the values of a civilised pluralistic and inclusive society', and it will fight 'social exclusion and poverty. It will improve the chances of moving towards greater social cohesion, help to achieve fewer social divisions in our country and foster greater international understanding' (para. 4.8).

In the government's The Learning Age, the idea of a culture of learning for all is taken forward. They talk of the need for a 'cultural revolution' - a 'revolution in attitudes'. The government asked the Fryer Committee to examine ways of creating a culture of learning. The Committee recognised that 'culture' is a 'notoriously slippery' concept to define, and took a fairly broad anthropological view, stressing that whilst it is not fixed, it is resistant to change, with deeply rooted customs that are reinforced though habit and conventions. (Fryer, 1999; para. 3.5). The problem is with the resistance to change, and in some cases, learning. The Committee understands that no person who does not want to learn should be made to do so, but they might be stimulated to want to learn, and that learning should be available for those who will benefit from it. They also believe that it is everyone's civic responsibility to continue to learn.

Unfortunately, many of those who could most benefit from lifelong learning in dealing with social change are currently excluded from or unaware of its pleasures and achievements, often lacking the self-confidence or opportunity to get involved. (para. 3.2)

In our country today, far too many people are still locked in a culture that regards lifelong learning as either unnecessary, unappealing, uninteresting or unavailable. Once schooling or immediate post-school education is over, they want nothing more of learning than it should largely leave them alone. (para. 3.6)

This places them and their concept of social inclusion and exclusion in a contradictory position. But this is by no means the first appearance of this contradiction. It is exactly the same as that experienced in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and at other previous historical moments, including during the nineteenth century, when it was uncertain whether the attainment of education for the masses was a victory for the working classes or the beginning of the end of their class consciousness.

Social inclusion as myth

Before we go too far and end up arguing, as a functionalist might, for the positive benefits of social exclusion and the persistence of inequalities as somehow natural, let us now look critically at the notion of social inclusion. Again, social inclusion with its warm and cosy connotation needs to be subject to critical analysis. Mention of functionalism reminds us that their view of social order depends, in part, on social integration. It is one of Talcott Parsons's functional imperatives that a society must seek integration of individuals, groups and communities if social order is to continue. As such there is an ideological basis to social integration. The vast majority of writings on social inclusion do not question that social cohesion and integration is inherently good. Where does this leave the notion of diversity? Does social integration require homogeneity of cultures, values and beliefs? We have witnessed episodes in history where such logic has led to acts of horror - wars and ethnic cleansing - as one community or one part of society uses its political and military hegemony to impose its ideologies, eliminating those who are not to be included. We are socialised into thinking that reason and democracy are both emancipatory. We know that there are sets of cultural beliefs that would find both reason and democracy as problematic. Through the project of globalisation it is possible that the hegemony of western thought, underpinned by political and economic values (capitalism) will achieve social and cultural integration. But what will happen to cultural diversity? Here is a view from an Iranian studying in Canada:

The implications of the history of the project of modernity and its defeat are quite evident for us as Iranians. Our history has shown that regardless of the kind of accepted norm at a given time, we are strongly drawn to homogeneity by means of exclusion and normalisation of diversities and extremely hostile toward recognising the right of what is different. (Payrow, 1995).

Critical reasoning continuously comes up against contradictions. In one sense, it is possible to argue that there can be no social inclusion unless there is also social exclusion. The elimination of social exclusion as a practical activity is unachievable. There can be no sense of difference in a condition of homogeneity in much the same way that it makes not sense to talk of equality without inequality, normality without a sense of deviance, order without chaos, or education without a sense of what it is to be uneducated. Moreover, seeking to promote social inclusion heightens awareness of difference and social exclusion. An example is the use of information technology to promote social inclusion. This leads to the exacerbation of the exclusion of those who, for one reason or another, do not access IT. In this sense, we need to understand that non-exclusion is not the same as inclusion, and that we must avoid taking away the freedom of those who choose not to be included.


Bernstein B (1970), 'Education cannot compensate for society' New Society, 26 February, pp344-7

Bernstein B. (1977), Class, codes and control, volume 3. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul

Byrne D (1999), Social exclusion. Buckingham, Open University Press

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Fryer R H. (1997), Learning for the twenty-first century. First Report of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning.

Fryer, R. H. (1999), Creating learning cultures: next steps in achieving the learning age. Second Report of the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning

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Payrow O (1995), 'Modernity and politics of exclusion'

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Willis M (1999), 'Meddling with the media'.

This document was added to the Education-Line database on 15 June 2000