Education-line Home Page

Whose life is it anyway?: considering "difference" in lifelong learning

Sue Jackson

Birkbeck, University of London

Paper presented at the 35th Annual SCUTREA Conference July 5-July 7 2005, University of Sussex, England, UK

It is not possible nowadays to open a university prospectus, or log-on to their website, without encountering a reference to lifelong learning. Lifelong learning journals and articles on lifelong learning proliferate. A search for ‘lifelong learning’ from SCUTREA conferences from 2000-2004 (no listings available for 2001) shows 30 papers. A similar search through BERA conference proceedings shows 113 papers which consider lifelong learning. Almost every edition of the Times Higher has an article or a letter or a news item about lifelong learning, and most publishers’ catalogues will have a section or sub-section for lifelong learning books. A click on ‘google’ brings up half a million UK sites and two and a half million worldwide! A discourse of lifelong learning abounds. It seems that everyone is doing it!

It all sounds well and good. There can be no-one reading this article who does not agree that learning is a good thing, and who believes that we all do – or should – carry on learning throughout our lives. But, like the campaign against smoking, all this talk about lifelong learning should carry a health warning. It might look good, and even taste good, but by golly does it do you good?

In the first place, definitions are fluid and imprecise, loosely used with vague but hegemonic understandings. Meaning is elusive and, despite the myriad of definitions available, the phrase escapes definition, and has been described as ‘slippery’ (Hodgson, 2000). Lifelong learning is a highly fluid and contestable concept (Brine 2000; Field 2000; Hughes 2001; Jackson 2002, 2003), with multiple overlapping and differing meanings. Whilst lifelong learning can mean all learning from cradle to grave, including formal, non-formal and informal learning, it is most frequently taken as synonymous with formal post-compulsory, and increasingly, post-14 learning. However, lifelong learning includes learning in educational institutions, in the workplace, in the home, and in religious, voluntary and community organisations.

Lifelong learning is a route for personal and political economic growth; it encourages development individually, locally, nationally and globally. It enables personal fulfilment; and the development of an active and inclusive society. There are clear links between community learning and social and political change and between informal learning and the development of citizenship (Coare and Johnston, 2003). However, as I will go onto show, lifelong learning can also be a mechanism for exclusion and social control, upholding and generating deep-rooted inequalities. The policies and practices of lifelong learning have been appropriated by whoever has an interest in doing so, including both right and left. In fact, lifelong learning can be all things to all people, and nothing to anyone. It is the best of times, and the worst of times …

Whilst lifelong learning is said to open up possibilities, for some the possibilities are greater than for others. Socio-economic and other factors lead to a narrowing down or even absence of possibilities, whilst the more privileged are able to claim greater access to limited resources. There are very many talented and qualified working-class young people who are denied places at ‘elite’ universities. Whilst minority ethnic groups are generally well represented in higher education, they are disproportionately located within the post-92 universities. Women, too, are now taking their places in universities in equal (or above equal) numbers to men, but are still primarily located in specific subjects and disciplines. Very few women, for example, read ‘hard’ sciences or engineering. Structural inequalities are ignored in a debate that speaks only of rights and responsibilities.

In coming into office in 1997 the new Labour government showed its immediate commitment to lifelong learning by appointing its first Minister. In his Foreword to the Green (consultative) Paper The Learning Age: a renaissance for a new Britain (DfEE, 1998), David Blunkett – then Secretary of State for Education and Employment – stated that the fostering of an enquiring mind and a love of learning are essential elements of lifelong learning. However, that same Green paper clearly linked lifelong learning with economic policies, making it clear that ‘learning is the key to prosperity’, and ‘education is the best economic policy we have’ (DfEE 1998: 7-9). The promotion of lifelong learning lies at the heart of present Government’s policies for post-compulsory education and training.

However, what lifelong learning means, what types of learning should be emphasized and what it will be important for people to learn are far from clear. This vagueness about the meaning of lifelong learning means that the Green Paper seems to be pointing in two directions at once (Young, 2000, 97).

Today, the main purpose of lifelong learning appears to be that it leads to economic participation and greater opportunities in the employment market, enmeshed in competitive advantage. The current UK focus on ‘lifelong’ learning is focused primarily on economically active 18 to 30 year old people with a discourse that is linked, through the labour market and the development of skills and training, to economic participation and the knowledge economy. However, such a learning agenda (re)constructs the structural inequalities of gender, class and other differences, where certain types of knowledge, skills and work are valued above others.

In its discourse of individual autonomy, lifelong learning becomes the responsibility of individuals to prepare themselves to take their place in a working society. It becomes incumbent on individuals to find, recognise and develop their learning opportunities. In a focus away from ‘class’ and towards a discourse of social inclusion and exclusion, access to inclusion is seen as via paid employment. Other forms of active engagement in society – unpaid work in the home and/or caring work, for example, or volunteering – remains undervalued. The socially excluded are those who are not defined as economically active. In today’s world, the ‘new universities’ have become old hat, working with outmoded ideas of widening participation.

The real new universities are those which deal only with employment. Take the government initiative, for example, of having a University for Industry, aiming to increase levels of skill in the working population, with the flagship of LearnDirect, a government sponsored initiative in workforce development. Or take the corporate universities, including the much heralded but ill-fated National Health Service University: soon to become the NHS Institute for Learning, Skills and Innovation. The NHS exemplifies carefully placed boundaries, job demarcation and separation – often with regard to gender – and it was always unlikely that the learning encouraged by the NHSU would challenge this. Power relations can subvert learning opportunities.

Outside of universities, the Learning and Skills Councils – responsible for post-16 training – pay close regard to the development needs of small firms. The Learning and Skills Council has also promoted a new initiative, with the launch of the Modern Apprenticeships Scheme. Schoolchildren as young as 14 are now able to spend two days a week in the workplace learning 'on the job' skills. Over a quarter of a million learners are currently on apprenticeship schemes: these have been particularly successful with regards to business administration, engineering, hairdressing and beauty therapy, land-based provision, retailing, and health and social care. These apprenticeships are likely to be gender specific. Women and girls currently take up only a tiny percentage of apprenticeships in the manual trades, and the biggest skills gaps that have been recorded are in building, plumbing and engineering ( The government describes the Modern Apprenticeship Scheme as an exciting prospect for any pupil wanting to pursue industry specific vocational programmes on top of the core national curriculum. Maybe so, but it is likely to ensure that working-class young people (especially working-class boys) are able to take their place in a prescribed socio-economic order.

Noticeable in this debate is the fact that this government has brought in a change in Ministerial title, from David Blunkett’s position as Secretary of State for Education and Employment, to Estelle Morris’ (and subsequent Ministers’) position as Secretary of State for Education and Skills. However, the skills that seem to form such an inevitable part of education and learning are the particular skills identified by employers as gaps in the labour market. These skills go on to form part of education policy and strategies. It is not surprising if the public has come to view all education – including higher education – as one that needs to emphasise employer needs and economic policy

And yet even for those in employment, for many the work they do is poorly paid, unrewarding and exploitative, whilst working-class men are still disproportionately affected by long-term unemployment. Although not so affected by unemployment, women still earn less than men, are more likely to be in part-time non-secure and hourly paid work, are less likely to have work-related pensions or other benefits and are less likely to reach senior management positions. Despite the seeming frenzy of worry that girls do better than boys at school, learning does not appear to balance out gender inequalities in the workplace, and divisions of labour remain gendered, classed and racialised.

And so, in a world where - as Thatcher so infamously stated - ‘class’ is outdated and there is no such thing as ‘society’, it is every man for himself and, as long as he is white, middle-class and not disabled, he is likely to succeed. So, with all this talk about lifelong learning, what I want to ask here is, whose life is it anyway? Is it yours? Or maybe mine?

Having grown up as a working-class girl in the East End of London in the 50s and 60s, and after leaving school at 15, I took an ‘A’ level at my local college, enrolled with the OU for my undergraduate degree, went on to take a Masters, to train as a teacher, to complete a PhD, and just to round it all off I now lecture in lifelong learning in Birkbeck’s Faculty of Continuing Education. In addition to my formal education, I learned whilst bringing up children, learning with them and from them (and sometimes in spite of them). I learned and continue to learn whilst doing voluntary work in the community. I learned and continue to learn through women’s groups and with my friends. A textbook case? Perhaps.

But despite my ‘success’, my story is embedded within structures and organizations that are gendered, ‘raced’ and classed. My ‘lifelong’ engagement with learning took the path it did both because of and in spite of the fact that I was a young, working-class mother of two. I count my meaningful educational experiences as beginning when I was 26, soon after the birth of my first child. Had I been someone else in a different place and maybe a different time, I would have been starting my career as an academic at that point, not just beginning as a student.

Negotiations into and through education are complex and mediated not only by gender but by other factors. Today, it is no longer fashionable to talk about class, but about socially included and excluded groups. However, I remain stubbornly unfashionable here. ‘Class’ is complicated and controversial, but I still find it useful for considering life chances, including educational life chances, where opportunities have both expanded and retracted for working-class students.

Whilst more students from lower socio-economic groups and working-class backgrounds are going to university, the balance between the social groups remains pretty much unchanged. There is still a large gap in entry to higher education by social class, with students from middle-class backgrounds three times more likely to go to university than those from poorer backgrounds ( ). The government has been very interested in showcasing foundation degrees, launched in September 2001. To date, over 24,000 students have signed up for a foundation degree, many of them likely to be from lower socio-economic groups: clearly a mark of success. And yet the currency of these two-year vocational degrees is still to be determined. They are designed to equip students with the technical skills needed by employers and, whilst they might open up training routes, they are unlikely to foster engagement with lifelong learning.

The DfES tells employers that foundation degrees will help develop, upskill and retain the current workforce, leading to more flexible employees. Clearly flexibility will be of some benefit to the workforce, giving greater opportunities for employment in changing markets. But to stay continually flexible also means having to accept short-term contracts and less job security, as well as having to be prepared to continually retrain. Today, learning is about developing the skills necessary to take our places in a global economy. This means that jobs for life are no longer an option – instead we are expected to aim for employment for life. For many of us, the employment available to us is determined by many factors that have nothing to do with whether or not we have taken a foundation degree, including our gender, ‘race’, socio-economic background and age. In a skills-based agenda for learning, all skills are not equal and some skills will not be recognised at all, including the skills women develop in the home; and the skills that are developed in community and voluntary work. Some skills – explicitly linked to the economy - will be valued highly; others (like teaching) will not.

For in today’s climate of rights and responsibilities of citizens, the emphasis is on learning, not teaching. Teachers are no longer needed: we have become facilitators of learning. Learners must take responsibility for self-directed learning and personal development plans; they must choose and combine routes of learning that meet their specific needs. At the same time, they must be aware of and exercise their rights as customers and consumers in a market-led education system. We supply what learners demand.

And yet we do so within the boundaries of regulations and funding and procedures and quality assurance and subject reviews and assessment exercises (see Morley, 2003). If students demand that we give them interesting and exciting courses which enable them to expand their horizons, develop new passions for learning, build confidence and self-awareness, yet also tell us that they do not wish to submit formal assessment – that learning for the love of learning is enough, we are not able to oblige. We know that learning for its own sake is supposed to develop active citizenship, community involvement, and be better for our health and family relationships (Schuller et al, 2004). Yet as teachers we cannot facilitate that learning unless we determine the outcomes of the learning in advance, and ensure that those (our) outcomes are the ones students have achieved. We know that our students engage in learning for all sorts of reasons, and we also know that students sometimes choose to abandon learning programmes also for all sorts of (very legitimate) reasons. Yet in such circumstances, it is not just the students who are deemed to have failed, but also their teachers and indeed their institutions. Many institutions are therefore having to think very carefully about the sorts of students they accept, and these are more likely to be 18 year-olds with ‘good’ ‘A’ levels – so much for widening participation.

The government has the laudable aim of achieving a 50% participation rate of a university education for people aged between 18-30. OK – it is a start, and foundation degrees have played their part in this. However, in around 30 years time nearly half the population of Britain will be over 50, the majority without a university education. There are growing numbers of elderly people for whom learning could take on increasing importance. There are currently more people in the UK over the age of 60 than there are under the age of 16. However, few of these learners or potential learners are interested in assessment, to which funding is attached. Over 40% of daytime students on non-vocational, non-accredited courses are aged 60+, compared to less than 20% on vocational and accredited courses. Additionally, it can be particularly difficult for older learners to access funding. They often want to learn for leisure reasons whilst funding is generally directed towards vocational learning   (   The current figures for participation by the over 50s are shameful, and yet for working class people, women and minority ethnic groups in this age range, participation in most forms of post-compulsory learning even when younger will have been minimal. For most people in these groups, including myself, continuing in education beyond the age of 15 was not an option, not even an unfulfilled dream. Education was not for the likes of us. And current widening participation and AimHigher initiatives, including the funding that supports them, means that education remains not for the likes of us.

So with all this talk of ‘lifelong learning’, what lives do we mean? Not it seems the lives of the over 50s, or the lives of those who want to engage in learning for its own sake, nor (unless we mean ‘lifelong training’) the lives of working-class people, nor the lives of many women or people from disadvantaged groups or those who are socially excluded. Despite the rhetoric, lifelong learning is not primarily about social cohesion, or active citizenship. The widening participation targets of the current Government, for example, focussing almost entirely on those aged 18-30, clearly has its education agenda shaped by economic concerns, with increased participation planned for those considered to be most worth investment for future productivity. Much policy interest is directed at producing an efficient and productive workforce, a workforce in which opportunities are still created or denied according to gender, social class, ethnic background, disability, age and other differences. Learning can become a form of cultural, social and economic production and reproduction.

And yet lifelong learning has such immense possibilities. Just because lifelong learning may have become appropriated now in a discourse of individualism and instrumentalism, does not mean that I want to give up on it. As a teacher and facilitator of learning (including my own), I have seen the differences that lifelong learning can make to people across the lifespan and in different ways. It should have the capacity to enrich lives, to develop self-confidence and personal growth, to enable people to explore and understand cultural differences, and to help with lifecourse transitions. And yes: lifelong learning can also help develop career opportunities. This aspect is not insignificant – it is just that it should not become the raison d'être for lifelong learning.

Many of the possibilities for lifelong learning are being fulfilled outside of formal educational institutions. There are many community based learning initiatives; the University of the Third Age thrives for older learners; organisations like the National Federation of Women’s Institutes have their own colleges and learning programmes; bookclubs proliferate in village halls across the country; faith-based organisations have full learning programmes for adults and children; and learning takes place in museums and galleries. But if working-class people are to be constrained in a never-ending cycle of skills-based training to enable them to go from one short-term job to another, then lifelong learning will become the preserve of the middle-classes, or – to put it another way – those in higher socio-economic groups, who have the time and the resources to participate. Academics, practitioners and policy-makers alike need to broaden their understandings of lifelong learning, backed with the funding to support it, so that if they so choose any member of the population – throughout their lives – can say that learning is for the likes of us.


Blunkett, D (1998) Introduction toThe learning age: a renaissance for a new Britain, London: The Stationery Office

Brine, J., (2002) The European Social Fund and the EU: flexibility, growth, stability, London: Continuum/Sheffield Academic Press

Coare, P. and Johnston. R., (eds) (2003) Adult learning, citizenship and community voices Leicester: NIACE

DfEE (1998) The learning age: a renaissance for a new Britain, London: The Stationery Office

Field, J., (2000) Lifelong learning and the new educational order, Stoke-on-Trent: Trentham Books

Further Education and Work-based Learning for Young People - Learner Outcomes in England: 2002/2003 (2004), London: Department for Education and Skills: ILR/SFR04 ( ) (accessed 21/01/05)

Hodgson, A., (Ed) (2000) Policies, politics and the future of lifelong learning, London: Kogan Page

Hughes, C., (2001) Developing a conceptual literacy in lifelong learning research: a case of responsibility, British Educational Research Journal, 27(5)

Jackson, S., (2002) Widening participation for women in lifelong learning and citizenship, Widening Participation and Lifelong Learning, 4(1)

Jackson, S., (2003) Lifelong earning: working class women and lifelong learning, Gender and Education, 15(4)

Morley, L (2003) Quality and Power in Higher Education, Maidenhead: SRHE and OU Press

Older people and learning - some key statistics Leicester: Niace ( ) (accessed 17/01/05)

Schuller, T et al (2004), The benefits of learning : the impact of education on health, family life, and social capital, London: RoutledgeFalmer

Social Trends 34 – "Participation rates in higher education by social class" ( ) (accessed 17/01/05)

Young, M (2000), ‘Bringing knowledge back in: towards a curriculum for lifelong learning’ in Hodgson, Ann (Ed), Policies, politics and the future of lifelong learning, London: Kogan Paul

This document was added to the Education-Line database on 01 July 2005