An Interview with Ann Hodgson: Lifelong Learning in the United Kingdom

Michael F. Shaughnessy – Policy in England is still evolving, but early indications suggest that there is a move to a more divided system for 14-19 year olds, with greater divisions between academic and vocational study and earlier specialisation.

Michael F. Shaughnessy
Eastern New Mexico University
Portales, New Mexico

1) Ann, you and Ken Spours and Martyn Waring have just completed  a book “ Post-Compulsory Education and Lifelong Learning Across the U.K.  What brought this about?

The book was the product of a seminar series funded by the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) and built on work that had been undertaken as part of a large Teaching and Learning Research Programme (TLRP).  We wanted to take some of the major ideas from TLRP and build on them by looking across as well as within the four countries of the UK.  From previous research we had learnt both that policy has a major impact in post-compulsory education and lifelong learning and that there is considerable mileage in discussion between researchers, practitioners and policy makers, each of whom is able to cast a different light on the implications of policy for practice.  The seminars and the book both drew on all three constituencies and we think that new knowledge has been created as a result of this synthesis.  

In addition, we were aware that since parliamentary devolution in Wales, Scotland and more latterly Northern Ireland, education and training policies across the four countries of the UK have been diverging.  Often in international comparative research it is assumed that one can talk of the UK as a whole; we were interested to see to what extent this was still the case or whether the divergence between the four countries of the UK was so considerable that this position was no longer tenable.   Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we wanted to explore whether there were cross-national lessons that could be learnt.  

This is not something that policy makers in the UK have sought to do actively since devolution and we hoped that our book would be a timely reminder that this type of comparison could improve the  policy process.

One potentially complicating aspect of the book was that we had a change of UK Government in May 2010, when the Conservative-Liberal Democrat Coalition came into power.  We had just enough time before publication to bring the volume right up to date by  describing what we thought the implications of this political change might  be both for education and training and, to some extent, for the UK political  system.

2)  Let’s talk about Scotland, Wales , and Northern Ireland, as well as England.  What are the challenges that each of these four currently face?

Something that Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland all have in common is that their  economies are heavily dependent on the UK economy and, in the case of Wales  and Northern Ireland they are also very dependent on the public sector for  employment.  This has become a real concern with the UK Coalition government which is hell-bent on pushing forward with a policy of deficit reduction that is already having (and this will only increase in the future)  a drastic impact on the public sector.  The state of the economy is of course important for all aspects of the public sector, but this is particularly the case with post-compulsory education and lifelong learning where the relationship with the labour market is crucial.  At the end of the book we describe three possible scenarios for the future (see pages 158-160).

 In all three countries (as also in England, incidentally) the work-based route plays a smaller role in education and training for  young people than the governments in these countries would like.    This puts greater pressure on the full-time education and training route to meet the needs of all learners.  In Scotland, and possibly in Wales, policies are beginning to look not just at increasing the qualifications outcomes for young people and adults, but also at ‘skills utilisation’ – i.e. How effectively skills are being used in the workplace.   This is very different from the approach taken in England and, we suggest in the book, is more likely to achieve better outcomes.   

Northern Ireland faces unique challenges within the UK because  of its history of division between Catholics and Protestants and this  filters into the education and training system too (although it is more  marked in the school system).  The way that devolution has been developed in that country through a power-sharing approach to government has done much to heal the tensions of the past, but according to those we interviewed in Northern Ireland, it makes moving any kind of new policies forward very slow.

There are two major challenge that all four countries face:

What type of future are we are preparing young people for and how best do we do this in a time of economic downturn?   There is a real concern that young people will not see a positive future for themselves, will no longer see education as the way to a  secure future and will drop out of the system.

Who should pay for education and training – what proportion should be government funded, what  proportion should individuals pay and what proportion should employers fund?   From the way things are going at the moment, it looks as if the answer to this question may be very different in England when compared to the other three countries of the UK.

3) How is technology impacting apprenticeships in the U.K. and Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland?

We do not really touch on this in the book.

4) What seem to be the present governmental policies at least in England at this time?

Policy in England is still evolving, but early indications suggest that there is a  move to a more divided system for 14-19 year olds, with greater divisions  between academic and vocational study and earlier specialisation. This would make it very different from Wales and Scotland, where a more unified approach is being taken.  It is clear from the recent Schools White Paper in England that the general education track will be made ‘harder’ and therefore more exclusive.  Professor Alison Wolf has been tasked with reviewing  ‘vocational education for 14-19 year olds’ and is due to report in  March/April.  There is also a considerable emphasis on a market in education and training with an encouragement for new providers to enter the field – academies, university technical colleges and free schools – to add to  an already complex institutional landscape.  The greater delineation between academic and vocational learning is likely to be matched by the differences in institutional types, which could mean that  academies and  sixth form colleges provide a more traditional general education, UTCs and  community schools offer a mix of general and broad vocational provision and  further education colleges and work-based learning providers offer vocational  courses and apprenticeships.  Again this would make England even more different from Scotland or Wales.  

The Department for Business Innovation and Skills has diverted money from adult training programmes into apprenticeships for young people, but there is a concern that these will not  transpire because they rely on employers and this is a difficult time for the  economy.  

Adult education budgets have been gradually cut over the years and while there is still a small budget for adult and community learning it is expected that more will be done in a more informal way through  libraries, voluntary organisations, the private sector etc – David Cameron’s   ‘Big Society’ idea, although this too is experiencing policy problems  due to public expenditure cuts.

Higher education fees will rise considerably in order to reduce dramatically the amount of funding universities get from the public purse and young people will be encouraged to apply for loans which will then be paid back when they are earning over a  certain income.  More (and cheaper) higher education will take place in further education colleges.

Loans are also being introduced in the further education sector so that those over 25 and not on basic skills programmes will have to either pay or take out a loan to study.  16-19  year olds and 19-24 year olds on a first intermediate or advanced level  programme or on basic skills programmes will still have their tuition fees  paid for by the public purse, but anything else will have to be paid for by  the individual.  The Education Maintenance Allowance used to support 16-19 year olds in education and training has been abolished and replaced by a much small hardship fund.

The rhetoric is of ‘simplification’ and reduction in bureaucracy in terms of governance, with the stripping out of certain quangos (e.g. QCA, YPLA), and more autonomy for providers, but in reality many of the policies, and particularly those associated with funding and accountability, suggest much greater power at the national level invested in the Secretaries of State in the Department of Education and the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.  Localism is a key buzz word but for many it simply suggests devolving responsibility for national budget cuts to the local level.  Local authorities have been given the task of ensuring adequate, high quality provision for 14-19 year olds in their localities to support  the raising of the participation age to 18 in 2015  , but with no real funding or power to carry out this  mandate.

5) Who will this book be of interest to and who will it impact?

It should be of use to national and international academics, policy makers and researchers with an interest in post-compulsory education and lifelong learning.  From responses so far it is likely to be made a core text for trainee teachers in the UK.  

We hope that it will have an  impact on policy-makers in the four countries of the UK whom we urge to slow  the policy process so that the system (mainly in England) does not lurch  from one initiative to the other in such an important area of policy; to  listen to researchers and practitioners who see the unintended as well as  the intended impact of policy on the education and training system and the  lives of young people and adults; and to create opportunities for dialogue  across the four countries of the UK in order to benefit from policy  learning.

6) What seems to be the “best practices“ in these four countries, and are they  learning from each other?

As indicated above the countries are not making much use of policy learning.  We do not go into detail in the book about areas of best practice – there is not space for this. Rather we contrast approaches to policy-making, organisation and governance.  We do suggest that the type of policy dialogue that takes place between policy-makers, practitioners and researchers in Scotland and Wales is positive in terms of the policy process and consensus building.   England is an outrider in this respect and we also suggest that England has something to learn from the Welsh Baccalaureate qualification in terms of creating a more unified curriculum and qualifications framework for 14-19  year olds.  However, there is little inclination from the Coalition  Government to engage in policy learning within the UK.  They appear content to let Scotland, Wales and NI go their own way.   Finally, we argue that the ‘skills utilisation’ approach taken in Scotland (and possibly now Wales) is likely to be more effective.

7) What is going on in the private sector as  opposed to the public sector at this time?

This is not an area we researched for the book.

8)  What  hath Gordon Brown wrough ( if anything ) in this regard? Or who is the person (if there is one) ultimately  responsible?

I think we suggest in the book that the legacy of New Labour in England was higher levels of participation in upper secondary education (from 2004 onwards), improvements in qualifications outcomes, particularly in literacy and numeracy (but being clear that this does not necessarily mean skills),   and a great deal of investment in this area that is clearly visible in the new school and college buildings.  But all this came at the price of a highly managerialist and centralist control of policy with little room for the local or professional voice.  Moreover, major and long-standing problems persisted– the low level of work-based learning opportunities for young people, the divisions in achievement between those at the top and those at the bottom, the lack of an overall vision or set of principles to guide education and training for 14-19 year olds, together with the constant turbulence in the system, particularly for those undertaking vocational education.   It has thus been rather easy for the Coalition, particularly the Conservative elements within it, to criticise and overturn the policies of its predecessors.  As you can see from the answers to question 4, we have real concerns over what is now  being put in place by David Cameron’s government.

In terms of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, New Labour’s policies on devolution have allowed these countries to pursue a more independent, somewhat different and, in many ways, more gradual set of reforms that look stronger because they appear to have managed to gain more consensual or even popular support.  There is still a question of how well they will perform in terms of levels of participation and achievement and, possibly more importantly, in the current economic climate.

9) Who are some of your key contributors and what are their contributions?

Professors Jim Gallacher, David James , Ewart Keep   and Gareth Rees (as well as Ken Spours and Ann Hodgson) were all  involved in major ESRC TLRP Projects related to post-compulsory education  and lifelong learning so bring their knowledge and expertise from these  projects and their understanding of the particular country in which they are  located – Jim Gallacher for Scotland, Gareth Rees for Wales and the others  for England.  Northern Ireland was covered by Ann Hodgson and Ken Spours with help from researchers based in that country.  In addition,  between them these researchers bring knowledge of particular aspects of  post-compulsory education and lifelong learning – Jim on FE and FE in HE;  David on FE colleges and the policy process and his chapter also draws on  interviews with FE principals from England, Scotland and Wales; Ewart on  work-based learning and policy analysis; Gareth on 14-19, FE and governance;  Ken and Ann on 14-19 education and training, policy on lifelong learning,  curriculum, qualifications, institutional arrangements and governance and  post-devolution politics.  Stuart Gardner, Dennis Gunning and Janet Lowe, together with Martyn Waring bring in the policy-maker perspective.  

Professor Ann Hodgson

Professor Ann Hodgson is Professor of Education, Faculty Director of Research, Consultancy and Knowledge Transfer and Co-Director of the Centre for Post-14 Research and Innovation at the Institute of Education, University of London.

The Institute of Education is an autonomous graduate school of education within the University of London. During the last Research Assessment Exercise in 2008, the IOE was judged to be the best Higher Education Institute in the country for education research. (

This book is available to order in North America from Stylus Publishing ( and can also be ordered from all online book retailers such as Amazon.


Mr. Jay Derrick

Jay Derrick teaches on post-compulsory education teacher training courses at the Institute of Education, University of London.

The Institute of Education is an autonomous graduate school of education within the University of London. During the last Research Assessment Exercise in 2008, the IOE was judged to be the best HEI in the country for education research. (

This book is available to order in North America from Stylus Publishing ( and can also be ordered from all online book retailers such as Amazon.



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February 11th, 2011

Michael F. Shaughnessy Senior Columnist

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