The Yellow Brick Road of Learning

At the recent Festival of Dangerous Ideas debate ‘Is Education Wasted on the Young?’, Louise Taylor, CEO of the Big Learning Company, made a remarkable comment – possibly the first person to live to 200 years of age has already been born. A scary thought!

A person of such an age could call on vast experience and knowledge. This led me to thinking about the increase in life expectancy and what this means for adult learning.

OK. 200 years might not happen but we know the number of centenarians is increasing rapidly. Office for National Statistics data show that in 2013 there were 13,780 people aged over 100 in the UK. 710 were over 105. This figure has more than quadrupled since 1983. The number of those aged in their 90s has increased from 157,390 in 1981 to over a half million in 2013.

These older citizens were at school in the 1920s and 1930s. They started work and began to raise families in the1930s and 1940s.

Had they received no further education after school (and many left at 14 or 15), they might  reasonably have believed that the canals on Mars were built by Martians, that the sun would never set on the British Empire and that airplanes would always have propellers.

The knowledge a young person receives at school is only a beginning. Now it becomes outdated far more quickly than even 20 years ago.

The world of work in 2030, 2050 and 2070, let alone in a 100 years’ time, will be very different from that existing now. We are not sure in what ways but current predictions are that people will change their jobs more frequently, sometimes moving within the same broad occupation, sometimes into a completely different career. Skills will need to be regularly updated.

An adult from the age of 18 and living to 90 will spend 630,000 hours on earth (72 years x 365 days x 24 hours) with a few more added  for leap years!. Around 200,000 hours will be spent sleeping (8 hours a day?) and a further 92,000 hours in work between the ages of 20 and 70 (8 hours a day for 230 days a year for 50 years) – yes we invest twice as much time sleeping as working. Around 338,000 hours remain to look after our families, to travel and shop, to spend in leisure activities and to invest in education and skills.

These are crude figures. But if only 5% of a person’s time who lives to 90 is spent on  education after 18, then we are talking about almost 17,000 hours or around 700 full 24 hour days in a lifetime.

We know that active engagement in adult learning has huge benefits to health and well being. It raises skills levels and boosts the economy and, by bringing people together, helps build local communities. It reduces crime levels.

So my first not so dangerous idea is that everyone completing compulsory education should be equipped with literacy, numeracy and digital skills to cope in life. But – and this is fundamental- they should leave with the clear understanding that learning is only just beginning and with the desire and passion to continue their education throughout life.

My second more dangerous idea. Citizens regularly receive advice on the amount of physical activity they should do each week; the types of food they should or should not eat; the number of units of alcohol they should or should not drink; the health risks of tobacco. Athletes are given fitness regimes to follow. The careers service guides people to find suitable jobs. In the same way, citizens should advised  on the minimum necessary amount of education per week that will keep minds alert, bodies healthy and job prospects higher and be given support to find this education.

Who should give this advice? Well let’s start with the Government. Just as it sets up advisory bodies on a huge range of areas, a panel of experts should be appointed to make recommendations on the amount and type of learning a person should engage in every week and conduct impact assessments to test whether this advice has worked. A type of National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE) for education. And how about an app to enable individuals to keep track of their learning just as many now check their calorie levels, weight and height.

Thirdly, doctors should be trained to prescribe appropriate learning to their patients rather than pills and tablets and hospitals should look to turn patients into students. Education should be central to the work of prisons. Housing associations should deliver numeracy classes for some tenants. Trains, buses and planes should mount short bite sized courses – why do long distance flights always have a diet of films but no education courses? In short, education should permeate all walks of life.

Learning will become a modern winding yellow brick road along which individuals progress – sometimes moving quickly, sometimes slowly as they navigate life’s road bends but always moving forward. Steadily clocking up those 17,000 hours, if you are lucky to reach 90 years of age or more, if you reach100 or, indeed, 200!