School of Everything (SOE) an independent UK company set up in 2008, describes itself as a “social learning network that connects people who can teach with people who want to learn”. It’s free to join for teachers, and appears to be geared mainly towards adult learning.
Last month, SOE announced its partnership with the UK government. The Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Becta were looking for an online platform to help push forward the government’s vision for informal adult learning in the UK, and it seems that SOE fitted the bill. In Becta’s words, the government wanted to “put online support in place to help people find activities, events, resources and venues for informal learning”.
The government’s “strategy” for informal learning was first set out in March 2009 in its White Paper entitled ‘The Learning Revolution’. Yet even a cursory glance at this document immediately reveals the irony. While there are indeed wide definitions of ‘informal learning’ (see, for example, the excellent online Encyclopaedia of Informal Learning), the key point is that it should remain informal, or as the OED defines the word, ‘Not done or made according to a recognized form; irregular, unofficial, unconventional.’
The government’s White Paper makes a spectacular nonsense of this definition. Not only does the document talk of ‘building a shared purpose’ and ‘principles for implementing informal adult learning policy’ but its final chapter, Making it Happen, brings up the spectre of ‘Fit for purpose accountability’. Specifically, how
Ofsted will develop and pilot a new approach for the inspection of informal learning to support the new vision to be implemented from September 2010. In line with the Comprehensive Area Assessment the focus will be on assessing how well local partners are working together to provide an innovative informal learning offer, widen participation and deliver positive outcomes.
You really couldn’t make it up! Could informal education get any less informal? As John Talbut, founder of the Education for Its Own Sake initiative, mentions on the SOE blog:
The talk of partnerships is alarming. These partnerships are not equal. They involve responsibilities on both sides, except that small organisations are required to meet their responsibilities or they lose support and funding, but the organisations have no way of making sure that government agencies fulfil their responsibilities. This is frequently the case with voluntary organisations … The history of the Open College Networks should be an object lesson. Once they were peer networks with objectives much like The School of Everything. Centres would moderate each others courses on a huge range of topics many of which would class as informal learning. Now the (much amalgamated) local OCN’s are licensed to accredit a limited range of courses by the NOCN which is “accredited by the Regulatory Authorities in England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland”.
In an interesting admission, Peter Brownell, one of the co-founders of School of Everything, replied to John on the SOE blog that the decision to partner with the government was “a big step and one [which] has had its fair share of soul searching.”
That said, the fact remains that the more the government encroaches into this area, the less freedom its practioners will have. As John Talbot suggests, “The upshot may be that The School of Everything will only be able to advertise training offered by government approved teachers (as is now the case throughout further education)”.
I am reminded, sadly, of a book I published a while back on Gandhian education. Gandhi’s plan to educate India depended more than anything on voluntary and communal self-help, yet it was destroyed by the centralist-industrialist agenda of Nehru’s post-Independence government. In the words of Partha Chatterjee, Nehru’s modernists set up a false dialectic between,
“a domain of rationality and a domain of unreason, a domain of science and a domain of faith, a domain of organization and a domain of spontaneity. But it was a rational understanding which, by the very act of its recognition of the Other, also effaced the Other” (P. Chatterjee (1986) Nationalist Thought and the Colonial World – a Derivative Discourse? p.153)
If informal education is our modern-day ‘Other’, we may well have a fight on our hands.