Lifelong learning for all

Centre for Educational Research and Innovation (CERI)

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The role of education in contributing to a fairer society has always been double-edged. When successful in widening participation in learning, its contribution is powerful and positive. But too often, it can have the opposite effect of being socially selective, even divisive.

Policy strategies need to work with this dual focus – reinforcing inclusion and participation while tackling out-dated forms of selection. In 21st century society, this longstanding equity goal for education takes on new urgency.

First, as economies and societies are increasingly knowledge-based, the price paid for missing out on learning becomes a high one. This is made worse by the decline in low-skill jobs, which have traditionally employed those with few qualifications. Second, as information and communication technologies (ICT) spread into all aspects of our lives a new dimension of exclusion has been created: the so-called “digital divide”. Third, fragmenting families and communities too often mean weaker social bonds and identity. This emphasises a critical mission for education that goes well beyond skills development – cementing social identity, networks and community involvement, otherwise known as "social capital". Fourth, in our rapidly changing world, educational equity can no longer be addressed only in terms of what happens in schools and colleges but throughout our lives. The scope is now much more ambitious as countries aim to make lifelong learning available to all. The major problem remains that lifelong learners tend to be those who have already done well in initial education, although those who did not stand most to gain.

Inequalities remain 

Gender: The rise in educational attainment at both upper-secondary and tertiary levels has been greater for women than men over the past three decades, a rapid and universal trend in OECD countries. Female average educational attainment has now overtaken that of males in many, though not all, countries for which data are available (see chart). So important has been the shift that worries are now being expressed about male under-achievement, especially among disaffected adolescent men. Nevertheless, clear gender differences remain in subject choice: women are more likely to enrol in tertiary education fields related to the health professions, education and the social and behavioural sciences, and less in the natural sciences, industrial and engineering fields.

Socio-economic background: This is one of the most decisive dimensions shaping educational outcomes. Comparable data on these relationships are scarce, but what exists shows little sign that the social gaps are narrowing. Trends over the 1990s indicate that expansion of tertiary education has not, in general, reduced access disparities based on social background: the extra places have been taken up at least as much by children from more privileged socio-economic groups as by others. Another source is the International Adult Literacy Survey, permitting the measured achievements of young adults to be compared in terms of their parents’ educational attainments (OECD and Statistics Canada, 2000). The general pattern is clear – more advanced education among parents means better literacy for their offspring. The strength of the link does, however, vary. In the Nordic countries, for example, where literacy levels are very high, the extent of parents' education is a less determining factor than in most other countries.

Minorities: In many cases, minority groups have lacked equal access to learning resources to the point some-times, of being denied basic human rights. Countries have taken numerous policy initiatives to address linguistic and cultural diversity, and the lack of material and social resources ("cultural capital") that too often compounds the problems faced by minority populations. As this is not the case for all ethnic minorities, and indeed some per-form well above the average, equity policies need to be sharply focused. These policies should start as early as possible, continue through school, further and higher education, and into the labour market.

Special needs: Across OECD countries, substantial efforts have been made to integrate those with disabilities into the mainstream system. But providing inclusive forms of education within an accessible environment can be taken further still. This is not just because it is fairer and widens participation in learning, but because, per student, the inclusive approach is less expensive than separate special provision. Very many students are involved; approximately 15-20% will have call for additional "special needs" services at some stage of their school career. Even with the progress made, serious problems remain. Disabled students, even the well qualified, can find major hurdles before them in advancing to the higher stages of education and in gaining access to good jobs.

The digital divide: So critical is technological competence now to social and economic life that there is now a new dimension to exclusion, that of the digital divide. Studies show that better access to computers and the Internet is linked to social advantage, ethnic and educational background, and even where someone lives. Access is important but there is a risk of the digital divide being over-simplified. Instead of being narrowly technological, to be bridged primarily through investing in more computers and Internet connectivity, it has deep social and educational roots calling for a broad range of policies. Wider access to ICT is needed in libraries and community centres as well as schools. Developing expertise in ICT use among all students and (especially) teachers is also critical. Partnerships have to be built with the telecommunications companies. An ICT dimension should be integrated into broad social and educational equity strategies.

The life cycle: Inequalities persist past basic schooling. Participation in adult education tends to follow closely the patterns of success in initial education, with the alarming result that inequalities among young people grow even wider. The same holds true for participation in job-related training. Employers devote on average significantly more resources for training high-skilled, well-educated employees than others, reinforcing skill differences. The International Adult Literacy Survey also found after controlling for other factors – hours worked, company size, professional grade – that those making greatest use of their skills at work are six to eight times more likely to receive company training than the low-skilled. Clearly, equity strategies for education must continue well after people have left school and college. Public strategies for adults should be targeted to those who missed out early on. And tax incentives can encourage investment in training by small- and medium-sized enterprises, including for older workers.

General lessons 

Beyond targeted approaches, a number of general lessons can be highlighted for educational policy. First, it is important to set clear goals, targets and priorities, and to monitor progress on equity at all levels of education systems. Equity should be an integral aspect of all education policy and practice, not treated as a matter apart. To this end, much improved pertinent information is needed at all levels, from the local to the international.

Much more than good data is needed, of course. The education system, especially upper secondary and tertiary education, should be diversified, flexible and open to new forms of teaching and learning. Co-operative programmes between young people, teachers, parents and community-based partners, including employers, should be fostered. These positive features can be enhanced through distance learning and if ample recognition is given in study programmes to informal learning, such as work experience.

Resources need to be deployed strategically. Equity policies often call for additional resources, but their quality and use are just as important for effective change as the quantities involved. Education policies alone will not suffice. Progress depends on more coherent, co-ordinated public policy, embracing employment, welfare, health and housing, in partnership with education and training.


• OECD, Education Policy Analysis, 2001.

• OECD, Education at a Glance: OECD Indicators, 2000.

• OECD, Special Needs Education: Statistics and Indicators, 2000.

• OECD, Learning to Bridge the Digital Divide, 2000.

• OECD and Statistics Canada, Literacy in the Information Age: Final Report of the International Adult Literacy Survey, 2000.

©OECD Observer No 225, March 2001

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