Lifelong learning and social mobility in Europe – a blank page?

 

One of the European Commission’s agencies has just published a very interesting and informative report on social mobility in the EU. The European Foundation for the Improvement of Living and Working Conditions (Eurofound) has drawn on existing studies and surveys to provide an overview and comparison of the EU member states. It finds that European societies have generally converged in this area, with marked changes in gender patterns; it also suggests that recent trends in social mobility vary considerably by country and gender.

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I found this a valuable contribution, and as you would expect with a state agency it concludes with a series of policy recommendations. It rightly calls for further research to help shed light on national differences in recent trends, as well as for further debate over which indicators might best help us understand patterns of social mobility.

Its call to prioritise men in Generation X is likely to be controversial, but is based on evidence showing decreasing life chances among men born after 1964. It identifies early selection in education and residential segregation as major causes of  social closure, issues of particular concern in the UK.

This is all well and good. But I was shocked to see that lifelong education appears precisely twice in the report, both times in respect of policies for opening up labour market opportunities. There is no mention of evidence on the social mobility benefits of family learning or adult retraining or second-chance entry to higher education. Some of the findings around family learning interventions were summarised in our recent report for the UK Government’s Foresight project on the future of skills and lifelong learning, so it isn’t exactly inaccessible.

I suspect that the authors of the Eurofound study – and their distinguished advisory panel – simply didn’t see lifelong learning as much of an issue. They should have done, but I also think we can and should do much more to make sure that the benefits of adult learning are much more widely acknowledged. In this case, “we” comprises both the adult learning research community and the large number of reflective practitioners in our field, both of whom need to engage much more systematically with (a) policy-makers and (b) researchers in cognate disciplines. Insularity does none of us any favours.

 

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Diversity training: what’s the point?

Lifelong learning is often treated as a magic potion – ignored and even despised for the most part, then  enthusastically embraced as the ideal solution when crisis hits. I’ve long thought that one of the best examples of this trend is the way in which organisations suddenly offer diversity training in response to criticism, as the Metropolitan Police did when the Macpherson Report concluded that its current procedures and policies were ‘institutionally racist’.

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From the Mechanics Institute Library milibrary.org

In short, I think that senior managers often use diversity training as a fig leaf or a diversionary tactic. Rather than changing their practices, they try to change the attitudes of staff, particularly relatively junior staff. In turn, people who are sent on diversity courses on a more or less compulsory basis are hardly going to be the most receptive learners. The upshot is that cynical leaders purchase cynical training programmes which  produce cynical workforces.

In a new book which is attracting widespread attention, Iris Bohnet argues that apart from anything else, diversity training simply doesn’t work. There is simply no substantial evidence base of its effectiveness, nor would she expect it to work because it tries to engage the rational part of our brain in finding rational solutions, when what we need is to avoid the problems in the first place. If we want  to overcome gender bias in organizations and society, we should focus on de-biasing systems (eg how we evaluate performance, recruit, promote, or form teams) rather than on de-biasing people.

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You can read more about Prof Bohnet’s case in her new book, What Works: Gender Equality by Design. I suspect that some people will focus on her ‘take-away’ messages rather than reading the book, and conclude that all diversity training is pointless.  She doesn’t argue that training for diversity, or women’s leadership programmes, are necessarily pointless or counter-productive; on the contrary, she thinks it has a part to play in changing behaviour, along with such other ‘nudge’ factors as gender-blind recruitment procedures.

There is plenty to disagree with in What Works. I found her account of the brain, and its associated decision-making, particularly crude and simplistic. But I do think the overall message – change systems first, and then help workers adapt to the new procedures – is a useful basis for any equality strategy.