How can we make lifelong learning systems truly inclusive? How can we make sure that eventually everyone will embrace learning as a basic premise of life, like eating and sleeping?

An almost disarmingly obvious answer to this question came out of the session Skills for All at the joint ETF-UNESCO conference Building Lifelong Learning Systems: we need to make sure no one is left behind.  

That may seem obvious, but the fact of the matter is that most of the energy we use on inclusion today is remedial. Perhaps, we should work harder at fixing the root of the problem and pick the fruits later? We’ll get back to that.

The session was a display of positivity, showcasing inspiring examples of how closed education systems around Europe are being cracked open to allow people back in who had been left out in the past, to allow people to move sideways instead always just ahead, to recognise the enormous efforts people make to acquire skills outside the formal education system, and to let in all partners from across society to make learning more relevant to the needs of individuals and societies.

Examples from Montenegro and North Macedonia showed how efforts in the Balkans to reach out to disadvantaged groups and regions are bearing fruit. The Portuguese case showed how years of hard work in validating prior learning have not only certified the skills of thousands of people but also contributed to a more positive attitude towards learning. The story of the Turkish NQF (an acronym for No Quick Fix, according to Osman Seçkin Akbiyik) was a classic example of how a national qualification framework can be employed to promote flexibility, rather than narrowing learning descriptors. 

Speakers from the ILO and UNESCO subsequently gave their perspective of what is a key issue for both international organisations.

The issue of inclusion is so complex and diverse that it can seem difficult to find consensus among an international group discussing it but when listened to carefully, the language sounds like a thesaurus, with a variety of ways of expressing a few core issues, many of which indeed return throughout the conference.

These include the need to involve everyone, both in identifying problems, in finding solutions and in implementing them. This can be disadvantaged groups helping to develop learning solutions, but it can also be companies helping to think creatively about how they can contribute with mutual benefit.

The need for better information is almost universal and a tough challenge when it comes to inclusive lifelong learning. There is simply very little data that can be used in a systematic manner and for good reasons: data gathering typically requires some form of standardisation and standardisation goes directly against the core aims of tailored learning. 

Flexible approaches are needed that also cover non-formal forms of learning. There is so much learning going on outside schools, such as at home and in the informal economy. Proper acknowledgement and recognition of such learning gives people not only credentials but also the motivation to keep learning.

Holistic, integrated approaches and structures work. Inclusion must be a basic principle, not an afterthought.

A specific recommendation from Christine Hofmann of the ILO was to prioritise general practical improvements, such as separating washrooms, defining policies against violence and harassment, and promoting the use of non-discriminatory language.

The latter linked into what we mentioned at the start of this text: one final, but particularly important conclusion of the session was that we must move the focus of our energy from  fixing things towards trying not to break things in the first place. The people that are hardest to get back into a learning mindset are those that have had negative learning experiences in the past and we know that disadvantages accumulate over a lifetime, so addressing the causes of negative experiences would seem to be a sensible investment.

The third section of the session, an interpretation by 17-year-old Alexia Popescu of highlights from the ETF-UNESCO study Building a resilient generation in Europe and Central Asia that was published just this week, confirmed that there is still much to be done in this area. Almost two thirds of some 8,000 polled young people from six countries stated that they had experienced or witnessed some form of discrimination.

Among those are the future adults that we will have difficulty reaching for lifelong learning in the years ahead. 

Several attendees pointed at this, but the one who perhaps formulated it best was Christina Bacalso of UNICEF, who said that the greatest future generational dividend we can harvest comes from investment in anti-discrimination now.

Key take-aways:

  • Involve everyone with a stake in education in making sure no one is left behind.
  • Base decisions on information, not just quantitative but also qualitative, because quantitative data on lifelong learning is hard to source.
  • Holistic, integrated approaches and structures work. Inclusion must be a basic principle, not an afterthought.
  • Validate non-formal forms of learning. It gives people both recognition and the motivation to learn more.
  • Don't just concentrate on fixing things, try not to break them in the first place.

To see the full event: