Enthusiasms for lifelong learning come and go, reappearing in different guises on a roughly 10-year basis.  Just over a decade ago NIACE (the predecessor of today’s Learning & Work Institute) published Learning Through Life, the final report of its 2-year Inquiry into the future of lifelong learning[1]. LTL was the product of a heroic commitment by NIACE, powered by its director Alan Tuckett.  Investment of over £1m saw a slew of reports and analysis.  These covered different sectors, from schools to private training providers; a range of themes, analysing the links between LL and poverty, crime, technology and many others; and calculations of public value, simple ways of linking LL to positive social outcomes such as lowered recidivism.

Sadly LTL proved to be the culmination of the LL surge rather than the launchpad we hoped would take the country to the next level.  Over the next 10 years, public spending on adult learning plunged by 35% – even including apprenticeships, the highly applied form politically favoured in recent years.  Participation rates dived in parallel, jumping only in this last year when so many people turned to some form of learning as a release from Covid-imprisonment.

Are there lessons for the campaign that we can draw from the Inquiry generally and the conclusions presented in LTL?  A general one might be, get your political timing right:  LTL appeared just before a general election and was smothered in the change of regime that followed.

More practically, LTL argued for a number of different variants of entitlement, and I think these are worth reflecting on for their possible application to the current campaign for the right to learning.  They were:

1. a set of general entitlements

  • a legal entitlement (LTL: for free access for all who need it to learning for basic skills)
  • a financial entitlement (LTL: to enable a minimum level of qualification – judged then to be Level 2)
  • a good practice entitlement to learning leave as a feature of employment contracts.

2. Specific ‘transition’ entitlements, designed to help people making difficult transitions such as leaving prison or institutional care, or passing an age milestone (50/60/70).

3. We argued that these should be underpinned by:

  • infrastructure guarantees, notably a comprehensive advice and guidance service, and universal access to broadband; and
  • a national system of learning accounts.

Most of these will be familiar as ideas to people interested in the Campaign, but distinguishing these different kinds of entitlement and support is nevertheless helpful in thinking through the generic notion of a Right to Learn.  For example, an entitlement to learning leave may look fanciful against a background of gig working and fragmented employment; on the other hand it might just be the kind of thing that an employer today would want to introduce as a sign that they offer ‘good work’.

We significantly underestimated the significance of digital and online learning, even at the time.  Obviously this has increased greatly in the intervening years, and Covid has given the recognition of digital learning a huge boost.  It perhaps makes some of the conditions for learning accounts trickier:  on the one hand we need to avoid the mistakes of the initial ILA venture, with its sad history of scamming; but on the other hand the lavish proliferation of online learning opportunities makes it harder to define what forms of learning merit public support through the kinds of entitlement outlined above.

Possibly the most original aspect of LTL’s work was its attempt to show how badly skewed is the distribution of support for learning across the life course.  This had two components.  First, we made a best guess at the totality of spending on learning across all sectors – from the public purse, by employers and from personal/household budgets.  This came to the impressive total of £55 billion – large even by post-Covid standards.

Secondly we suggested a new, very simple, model of the adult life course, dividing it into 25-year segments in order to sideline the obsolescent divider of 60/65.   We then mapped the expenditure to the age groups, using average participation rates and average durations of study. We found that no less than 86% of the total spend went on our first age group (18-25), another 11-12% on 25-50 year-olds,  with scraps for the rest.  My guess would be that this imbalance has grown even stronger since then.  Any serious effort to build a general right to learning needs at least to be aware of the distribution of resources and how this needs to change – especially with an ageing population.

The current Campaign fits very well with the mounting interest in what are sometimes called Universal Basic Services – the idea that there are some things that all citizens should have access to[2]. Everyone recognises health and education (at least for young people) as part of this, perhaps also transport, with care now propelled up the agenda.  But digital access now joins the more familiar ones.  With that comes digital literacy, as a necessary condition for accessing the service.

Digital literacy sat alongside three other literacies – or capabilities as we called them – which made up a ‘citizens’ curriculum:  civic, health and financial.  These all seem as relevant today as they did then.

David Watson, my co-author and the chair of the Inquiry, died prematurely just five years ago.  It would be a fine tribute to him if some of the LTL ideas were to prove fruitful for the current Campaign.

Tom Schuller is a Visiting Professor at the University of Wolverhampton and Chair of the Prisoner Learning Alliance. Tom was the Director of the Inquiry into the Future of  Lifelong Learning undertaken by NIACE in 2010 and co-authored its ‘Learning through Life’ report with Sir David Watson.


[1] Tom Schuller & David Watson (2009) Learning Through Life, Leicester: National Institute for Adult Continuing Education.  http://www.learningandwork.org.uk.gridhosted.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2017/01/Learning-Through-Life-Summary.pdf.

[2] Anna Coote & Andrew Percy (2020) The Case for Universal Basic Services,  Cambridge, Polity Press.