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Section 5. A Wider Vision of Learning

Given the aims of education which are embedded in the Reviews, and given the complexity of the social and personal circumstances from which the learners come, the Reviews argue for a wide vision of learning.
Key points

  • Learning experiences, focused on targets, are too narrow and disengaging.
  • The value of the FE Sector, educating and training 32% of 17 year olds, goes unrecognised.
  • Informal, experiential and practical learning is too often neglected.
  • Much more can be done to harness the power of new communications technology.
  • Learning opportunity, general and vocational, for adults into the ‘fourth age’ need support.
  • For too many, learning is restricted by poor health and social disadvantage.
  • For many, the work-place is where the quality of learning is most significant.

The narrow vision of learning

The Reviews share a common concern for the quality of learning, which should reflect broad educational aims. However, ‘quality’ is too often associated with ‘hitting targets’, rather than with processes of learning or deeper understanding of key ideas or personal development. This concern was emphatically provided to the Nuffield Review by one sixth former:
Far too often in education the emphasis is on achieving targets and regurgitating what the exam board wants, as opposed to actually teaching children something. As a sixth form student myself, this frustrates me on a daily basis, especially in history, when we must learn to write to the specifications of the exam board, instead of actually learning about the past (NR.p.67).

Nuffield Review provides evidence of widespread disillusion (in higher education, amongst employers, with teachers and even from the Chief Inspector) with formal learning shaped by a system of assessment which is dominated by that which is easily measurable (p.66-67, 81).

The Primary Review (p.291) similarly brought evidence to show that teachers feel excessively constrained and controlled, having to conform to
a state theory of learning … there is little doubt that the machinery of surveillance and accountability makes it difficult for schools to deviate from focusing on test performance (CPR p.291)

IFLL (p.49), in speaking of the need for nurturing an appetite to carry on learning, argued ‘too much schooling is focused on heaving students over hurdles and into the next phase of education’. The purpose of learning should not be ‘simply linked to qualifications’ (p.30).

The need for a wider vision of learning

Therefore, the Reports (NR ch.5; CPR ch.15; IFLL ch.1; TLRP 1, 3) emphasised the need for a wider vision of learning in three senses:

  • the processes of learning are different depending on the kind of thing being learnt (e.g. theories on the one hand and practical skills on the other), on the learning strategies of the young person, on the level at which the learner is at, and on the specific context such as the transition from one job to another (see the story of Roger, p.16). One size does not fit all.
  • the importance of informal learning needs to be recognised whether that be through play (CPR p.65-6), experiences of the ‘lived world’, social learning (NR p.70), or engagement in available cultural activities (IFLL p.54). But, as IFLL says, ‘the balance between allowing informal learning scope to develop and linking it with formal modes is hard to strike, and we have not found it yet’. One significant kind of informal learning, which impinges for good or ill on the formal, is that arising from the ‘new technology’ (see below).
  • focus on the initial phase of education should not lead to a neglect of the subsequent ones, where those who have failed in the initial phase have a chance to succeed later and develop new skills in response to economic change (IFLL pp.8,12)   

Hence, the Reviews set out the different kinds of learning and the different ways in which people most effectively learn:

  • learning facts and formulae – propositional knowledge, if you like;
  • learning to understand – acquiring that deeper grasp of the key ideas and concepts;
  • practical learning - knowing how to act intelligently and to address practical problems, which includes, but is not just a matter of, acquiring skills;
  • experiential and informal learning – usually acquired outside the formal context but affecting the learning within that context and providing a base for
  • social learning – the acquisition of social and communicative skills, usually through interaction with others either in formal or informal settings.

Such a list does not do justice to the extensive analysis of ‘learning’ in the Reviews (e.g. NR ch.4). Rather is it indicative of the complexity of the content of that which is learnt and of the processes of learning. It is necessary to get away from any simplistic set of prescriptions. Also it draws attention to the importance of active and practical learning (not to be confused with ‘vocational learning’), which have been much neglected in schools because of the pressure of tests and the coverage of a prescribed curriculum (NR ch.4). Further, it indicates the need for a deeper grasp of ‘pedagogy’ (see TLRP 1, 3, 12 and Section 7 below).

Lessons from the Further Education (FE) Colleges

The FE sector is frequently neglected in many policy decisions to widen learning opportunities   But colleges are very important in the understanding of the wider vision of learning.

  • In 2006/7, 28% of 16-19 year olds were being taught in FE Colleges (full and part-time) – 35% if 6th Form Colleges are included - compared with 19% in maintained schools.
  • 50% or thereabouts of post-16 full-time education takes place in these colleges, although policies about post-16 education mainly have schools in mind and the colleges receive 10% less income for doing the equivalent work as that done in schools (NR p.172-7).
  • Over 100,000 young people between the ages of 14 and 16 spend a substantial part of their formally organised learning in colleges of FE. The evaluation studies have shown how this has transformed the learning experience and motivation of many(xix).
  • Colleges are often the destination of young people who are deemed to have failed in the school system. Many entering further education have suffered from the damaging effects of their learning experience. As TLRP 6 states

An emphasis on target setting and achievement, regulated through outcome-based assessment and qualification system, has led to an impoverished curriculum for the majority of school-leavers and adults entering higher education.

  • Further education has to prepare many young learners for a range of occupational qualifications which require a different kind of learning. TLRP 6, aptly entitled Challenge and Change in FE, speaks of the different ‘learning literacies’, viz. the kind of language required for success in particular learning pathways, whether this be entry to more academic studies or vice versa a shift from the academic to more vocational.
  • Colleges are a vital condition for adult education whether general or vocationally related. IFLL refers to them as ‘the institutional backbone of local lifelong learning’.

New Technology and informal learning

The Reviews, especially TLRP 7, emphasise the value of new technologies for enhancing learning. Particularly in informal settings, new technologies transform the nature of learning for many, although, as we are reminded by IFLL (p.169-172), they present barriers to learning for those unable to access or master the tools. Where, in 2008, 93% of those with degrees had access to internet, only 56% of unqualified people had access – creating the ‘digital divide’ which conferred learning disadvantage.

The distinction is drawn, however, between
(i)   new technologies as useful tools for learning, giving a  source of accessible information. In this case, the nature of learning is not radically changed; getting information from the internet is not different in kind from getting it from a book or the teacher. (see Section 9);

  • new technologies as a transformation of communication (as in the case of on-line social networks, such as Twitter or Facebook).
  • new technologies as a ‘new literacy’ – a new mode of expression, of making sense of experience and of creativity.

With regard to (ii), the new technologies open up a new way of communication that transcends the face to face interactions of the formal setting. For example,
The previous government’s Gifted and Talented Young People’s (GTYP) Programme pioneered e-learning communities through which the learners were able to converse with each other across the country in addressing problems which they were asked to tackle.  In many cases, these young learners were reluctant to show their intellectual interests in their classes and valued the anonymity of an on-line community (NR p.75)

With regard to (iii), TLRP 7, in its Education 2.0? Designing the web for teaching and learning, shows the many newly evolving ways in which web 2.0 technologies support internet based interaction, creating ‘new or virtual realities’ (in which many young learners live out a parallel life and engage in multiplayer games). It points not only to social networking but also to ‘wikis’, ‘folksonomes’ and ‘mash-ups’. It has created a new ‘literacy’ – that is, a new language through which to create a new way of seeing reality. Similarly, MCWB (p.41) emphasises the importance of digital and mathematical/ technical literacies.

Several important implications are indicated.

  • ‘Young people are felt to be turning to web 2.0 based forms of learning in spite of, rather than ‘because of’, their educational institution. ‘We are just at the start of exploring how we can be organised without the hierarchy of top-down organisation’ (TLRP 7, p.11).
  • Teachers need considerable continuing professional development in order to keep up, not only with the changing technology, but also with the often greater expertise of the learners in the use of the technology.
  • The new technologies make it possible to reach those who, for various reasons, have no access to mainstream education, including the house-bound and the elderly.

For example, NISAI, located in Harrow, provides a ‘virtual academy’, serving over 400 young people unable to attend school for a variety of reasons (medical, school phobia, exclusion etc.). It has a virtual classroom, virtual chill-out room, secure social network, daily teaching and supervision for public examinations. (

Development and continuity of learning

The Reviews stress the way in which learning develops, that is, the way in which the understanding to be acquired builds on prior understandings and experience, thus requiring continuity. That requires planning to ensure growth and continuity and to avoid the difficulties which occur at key transition stages between primary and secondary (CPR p.367-372), between Key Stage 4 and post-16 education (where learners move into a very different learning context, often in a different institution – NR p.101,117,121) and into higher education (NR p.156-167).

But, further, IFLL argues for ‘an entitlement to learning’ extended to all, regardless of age, and developed flexibly over time, as part of mainstream conditions but particularly at potentially difficult periods of transition (e.g., on retirement, leaving care or prison, moving between areas, gaining further skills ). Needed are the opportunities for lifelong learning, not just the rhetoric. This is illustrated in the case of Roger (IFLL p.xi) 

Roger was a highly successful tunneller working on the then new Victorian Line, making a good living, in the prime of his life. A serious accident to the man working next to him … led Roger to reappraise his circumstances. He recognised that his ability to provide for his family relied entirely on his physical health, since poor reading skills had left him with little formal education. As a result, he signed on to the first adult literacy programme offered at Brighton’s Friends Centre … . He followed this with full-time literacy study, followed by the City Lit’s Fresh Horizons access programme, and higher education study. After a period as a qualified social worker, Roger became landlord for accommodation for single homeless people. Adult learning opportunities played a key role in Roger’s life – helping him negotiate career changes.

Wider context of learning

With reference to the social and economic context of education (see Section 3 above), the previous Government sought, through Every Child Matters and Children’s Plan (see CPR p.383/93 and NR p.33/4,39), to provide greater integration between educational, social and health services, and parental support. Educational performance is restricted by poor health and social disadvantage (see also NCDS p.27). As the MCWB (p.34) argued, wider benefits of education include prevention of such things as individual social exclusion and community breakdown encompassing crime, teenage parenthood, anti-social behaviour, intolerance of diversity, mental health problems, social division, disengagement from educational, social and economic activity, drug abuse and social immobility.

This more holistic approach to education is reflected in many developments, for example:

  • the ‘extended school’, with opportunities to engage in a wide range of activities (CPR.p.398 and elsewhere; NR p.82/3);
  • schools working cooperatively with the police in the introduction of ‘restorative justice’ where the perpetrator of some harm has to confront the victim (NR p.35,39);
  • links between education providers and the ‘third sector’ such as youth work (NR p.112)
  • co-operation between schools and parents, as is reflected, for example, in Family Links

Pegasus Primary School in Oxford has transformed learning opportunities through its ‘nurturing programme’, pioneered by Family Links (see, in which, through ‘circle time’, children learn how to resolve personal and social conflicts, co-operate with others, and understand their own and others’ feelings. A key feature is the involvement of parents so that they not only develop parenting skills but understand and support the teaching. The success of this approach is reflected in the fact that it operates in 200 centres in the UK, has trained over 4000 parent group leaders and sold over 18,000 copies of its learning approach, ‘The Parenting Puzzle’.

However, particular attention was given by IFLL (p.28/9, though highlighted by NR ch.9) to providing good quality learning opportunities in the workplace – the upgrading of skills in changing economic conditions and the transitions from one employment to another.

Wider vision in practice

Despite the narrowness of the target-led learning upon which schools and colleges are assessed, the Reviews found many examples of that ‘wider vision of learning’ which so many parents, teachers and learners hoped for. For example,

  • Use of ‘Third Sector’

SKIDZ provides motor mechanics and vehicle maintenance courses for young people, sent by their respective schools. So successful have they been in motivating young learners to re-engage in learning that generous grants from Porche have enabled SKIDZ centres to spread from High Wycombe to the London Borough of Hillingdon and beyond. (

  • Emphasising personal relations.

      Human Scale Education has helped form ‘small schools’ within larger ones, putting
      personal relations between learners and teachers and other learners, and between schools
     and parents at the centre of learning. It promotes the belief that education  flourishes when
     built on positive relationships within collaborative and sustainable communities.(xx).  (

  • Partnership with the Arts

The English Ballet Company brought together over 100 young people disengaged from education, employment or training. They were the ‘drop-outs’, but persuaded to take part in the Prokoviev’s ballet Romeo and Juliet. It was tremendous success. As the
Chairman of the Arts Council said, ‘it was an inspired choice of story: cross-starred lovers, dysfunctional families, gang warfare, macho games, self-harm, drug abuse and knife crime: it had them all’. Three years later nearly all these young people, once totally disengaged, are occupied in some form in the music, dance and drama world.

  • Student Teaching

Paul Hamlyn Foundation’s Learning Futures, building on its innovative Musical Futures (which is influencing 33% of secondary music departments), approaches learning through active methods which involve co-construction of the curriculum and pedagogy.  It is bringing schools together to develop and to test new models of pedagogy which better meet the teachers' understandings and the learners needs in 21st century schools.

  • Disengaged Youth Workers

Young people voiced their concerns about local policing and their feelings that they were subject to an implicit ‘move em on’ strategy. The workers acted as a link to the police and then as facilitators of a workshop in which all took part. A subsequent evaluation showed all parties had developed new insights, sympathies and empathetic behaviours towards each other: tension in the street was less likely to escalate into conflict.  Thereafter, young people were much more aware of, and interested in, their capacity to influence local decision-making.

  • Employer Involvement

The Centre for Engineering and Manufacturing Excellence (CEME), Dagenham, brings together employers, public sector partners, colleges, schools and universities as part of the London Thames Gateway Regeneration Scheme. The world class engineering facilities and expertise serve over 20 schools in the locality thereby enriching the Diploma courses in Engineering, providing routes for young people through school, apprenticeship and Foundation Degrees, and facilitating the re-skilling of workers in the several engineering and manufacturing (including Fords)in the region (

  • Experience in Primary Education

‘This is the only time I have seen a sheep. They feel soft. The host of the show sheared one in front of us’ (Victoria, year 6, from Meadowgate Primary School, Lewisham). Countryside Live organised an event that aims to highlight the benefits of learning outdoors for inner city children. A survey of 2000 children by the Eden Project found that children are becoming out of touch with the natural world.

  • Social Enterprises

The Young Foundation brings together insights, innovations and entrepreneurship to meet social needs. It supports a range of education focused social enterprises, offering solutions to some of the most pressing needs faced by schools.

  • Awarding Skills for Employment and Skills for Life

ASDAN is an internationally recognised awarding body whose mission is to create the opportunity for learners to develop skills for learning, for employment and for life. This complements the predominantly knowledge based focus of the National Curriculum. The emphasis is on using practical activities as the template for personal growth.

What came across clearly to the respective Reviews is that, where teachers and trainers in the workplace have the courage and the vision and where the expertise and resources of the ‘third sector’, youth service, major Foundations and employers are drawn upon, they can innovate and reconcile the narrow demands of the formal curriculum and assessment regime with more active and motivating modes of learning.

What then might we learn from these examples?

  • First, the opportunity for more active and practical modes of learning transforms the motivation and the understanding of many young people.
  • Second, the learners’ voices need to be listened to in the development of their understanding and practical abilities;
  • Third, response to the variety of learning needs requires co-operation between different learning providers (see Section 9 below).


The evidence is overwhelming that many young people experience a narrow and demotivating experience of education. This was never the intention of any government, but it is the consequence of several decades of government intervention. This is mainly due to the system of assessment which defines what is important to learn and what counts as having learnt successfully. As TLRP 11 declares, it is a matter of ‘achieving more but learning less’.

This is not to say that all schools do narrow the learning experience to fit the assessment system. There are many examples of innovative approaches to enrich the learning experience despite constrictions. Whole Education ( has brought together a loose federation of foundations and organisations, who maintain a wider vision of learning.

However, there is an urgent need, argued for in these Reviews, to think deeply about the different kinds of learning, about the different ways in which young people are motivated to continue with their formal learning, about how their prior experience might be utilised, about the most appropriate contexts in which learning might most effectively take place, about the value of work-based experience and about a vision which continues to ‘the fourth age’.

(xix) Higham, J. and Yeoman, D., 2006, Emerging Provision and Practice in 14-19 Education and Training, DfES Research Report 737, Nottingham: DfES.

(xx) Tasker, M., 2003, Smaller Structures in Secondary Education: A Research Digest, Bristol: Human Scale Education.


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