Further education – does it need to prepare young people for ‘leisure’?

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Mike Cooper reflects on current and past prophecies of the brave new worlds of ‘work’ and ‘leisure’ – and their implications for further education

A recent ‘OECD Insight’ blog again raises some familiar, and hard, questions: just what are we educating and training young people for? What sort of work and what sort of life lie ahead for them, and in what sort of world? It’s a somewhat different take, to my mind, on the recent cliché of ‘work–life balance’.

Brian Keeley, of the OECD Public Affairs and Communications Directorate, is short, clear and powerfully thought provoking in his article. Has the acceleration of technological change reached the tipping point where it has begun to destroy jobs faster than it creates them? Has education lost the race to spread the benefits of technology between the many? Are we now stuck with a ‘hollowed out’ workforce of high skills and low skills jobs – with very little and increasingly less in between.

These issues have been debated for centuries, and no less frequently in our times – because they matter. For many of us, the article may hold few real surprises but it’s well worth reading for its revival of the crux of the debate, and that matter of ‘balance’.

For me, it evokes a moment nearly 25 years ago, at the cusp of the IT revolution, incorporation and the post-Thatcher era. I was a lecturer at Wakefield College. A decent, intelligent, humane and thoughtful Vice Principal for Curriculum, David Marshall, gave one of those familiar end-of-year all-staff talks. He straightforwardly addressed the then-current predicaments for the College (many of course still bubbling away, albeit altered). Somewhat surprisingly, though, he finished with some brief personal reflections about where everything was heading – politically, socially, economically and technologically – and what that might mean for education, and especially the further education (FE) sector. His comments were a well-judged attempt to take a wider view beyond the local concerns for one public-service institution, and relating the universal to the particular.

In sum, his case was that – for all sorts of reasons, good and bad, liked or hated – FE colleges would need to prepare large chunks of society for a rather different kind of future from the one we had often been led to expect. He did not mean robots, jet cars, hologram teachers and GM foods. He meant increasingly large and frequent chunks of ‘leisure time’– or more frankly, ‘inactivity’, much of it enforced – for many. He also meant ‘reduced expectations’.

This included portfolio careers rather than jobs for life; gap years – imposed, and perhaps frequent; and, even for those who had regular employment, longer stretches of non-working time. (On the latter, I think he meant shorter working weeks and years, either by desire or necessity.) He didn’t mention graduate unemployment or lower-level employment traps, zero-hours contracts or migrant-v-native competition. Yet I doubt he’d be surprised to find those factors operating now.

And the implications for education overall, and FE colleges in particular? No one listening who knew him at all doubted he was anything other than utterly committed to excellent, broad and flexible vocational training, as well as to high-quality academic provision. He didn’t decry any of that. But he did say that both would need to change, in similar ways – and would need to inform each other more effectively than they had ever done. The real job now was probably at least as much, if not primarily, to help individuals make the best of that less-than-desirable coming world.

By this, he meant we needed to educate and train for a life of some kind of greater ‘leisure’ (said with a slight pause, a raised eyebrow and a telling inflection). We had to find ways to get people to understand more, think and feel more, engage more, imagine more and respond more positively and effectively.In other words, to be far better at ‘leisure’ – comfortable or not, wished-for or otherwise.

It was really a plea for a new sort of liberal-arts general education, alongside the increasingly mechanistic and instrumental purposes of both the VET and academic curricula. And this was, I repeat, nearly 25 years ago.

I thought at the time, and increasingly since (never more than in the past few years), that David Marshall was a prophet; one crying on the edges of a growing wilderness. This OECD article has brought him back to mind, and reinforced that view. His thoughts of course distilled those of many others – notably perhaps Charles Leadbeater (but well before his book Living on Thin Air, published in 2000), and Charles Handy.

Marshall took an early retirement package a year or two later – worn out and disillusioned. It was a loss to the college and its many communities, to FE, and perhaps more widely still. Voices like his, not much heeded then, are even more needed now. Most particularly, they are required in today’s FE leaders – both from the political sphere and across the sector itself.

Do these voices exist? Do we have leaders of FE who articulate a genuinely enlightened, and enlightening, strategic vision – as opposed to merely being ‘brilliant’ at adapting to every twist and turn of policy? Just as some say teachers can no longer develop the curriculum significantly (because they have been de-skilled and told endlessly what and how to deliver, for too long), it is sometimes hard to discern principals and chief executives who really can and do set a ‘good agenda’.

The sort of huge issue tackled  in the OECD article, and long ago by David Marshall, so pregnant with implications, is a real ‘challenge and opportunity’ – far beyond many matters that are glossed-over with those clichés in order to avoid rather bigger and tougher questions.

If that seems much too rarefied, just consider one new practical development with which FE must now cope. Could the development of Local Enterprise Partnerships (LEPs) and their associated local skills and local growth plans give a context where such truly visionary leadership of this kind, and on this issue, might be exercised? For some of us, it’s hard to see such strategic engagement being deployed by the FE sector so far. It seems more about tactical positioning, based on tacit acceptance of the received ‘skills, skills, skills’ orthodoxy.

The simple truth is that those who experience an effective mix of good-quality education and training will be best equipped to cope with unforced or enforced leisure – or whatever the next downturn or revolutionary change brings. And indeed such people are the least likely to find themselves out of work, or lacking options. At the heart of it all should be a reassertion of the central role that FE has always played best – helping to equip all our people with a full range of essential learning: knowledge, skills, understanding, imagination and adaptation. To make a pun, we should, as David did decades ago, marshal these arguments – and through them, press on with the business of leading real change.

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Posted in Further Education, OECD