It’s not every day that you are asked to develop the Lifelong Learning Strategy for your country. Lifelong learning has become a loaded term within the EU context, with interpretations that range from ‘learning throughout life for personal empowerment’ to ‘learning basic skills’ to secure employment in the labour market. So it was clear to me at the outset that this strategy was unlike others I have developed for organisations in the private and public sector – not least because of my own deep conviction that ‘learning through life’ is not just an activity we are obliged to follow for economic reasons, but the fundamental right of every citizen in an inclusive society.
This week the National Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020 was published for public consultation. These are some ‘take-homes’ which may resonate when developing public policy and strategy:
1. Be pragmatic. The document needs to incorporate sufficient detail to secure the buy-in of senior policy-makers yet leave space for all stakeholders to develop the requisite action plans and start to implement programmes. This is the equivalent of walking a tightrope between ‘policy-speak’ and ‘action-speak’. When in doubt, for the sake of clarity, it is better to write more than less.
2. Strike a balance between ideology and practice. Several academics believe that within the EU,’ lifelong learning’ risks being appropriated by the majority speak of neo-liberalism as opposed to a person’s lifelong search for meaningful education. Yet every EU member state is obliged to deliver a strategy that is receptive not just to local contexts, but demonstrates an awareness of the larger socio-economic contexts. The very notion of the ‘national’ is inevitably challenged when a small EU-member state develop national strategies. Yet strategies need to be compelling to local cultural contexts if they are to form the framework for consensual change.
3. Be sensitive to the contradictions. National education strategies frequently expose chasms between the interests of user groups. For instance, there is no such thing as a homogeneous learner. The state is obliged to facilitate not just the interests of those who wish to keep learning (to find a job, change career etc) but also ‘go the extra mile’ for those who have not shown any interest in education beyond the bare bones of the curriculum, and those who have been marginalised from education for a raft of socio-economic reasons. In the case of a lifelong learning strategy, you also have to align the ‘learning outcomes’ approach embraced by EU institutions with ongoing criticism from the labour markets and social partners that our education systems and institutions are not providing citizens with the skills needed by enterprise.
4. Do your research. In my case, I navigated through the best practices of institutions like Cedefop and ETF, the critical territory of academics and practitioners and the measured suggestions of EU bureaucrats. The strategist must have the capacity to absorb a large amount of data, and then build on the lessons of other contexts to find solutions that can be owned by key stakeholders in the local context.
5. Lock the structure for the plan early on. I still find that pyramid approaches to strategic planning provide the strategist with a structure that allows for top-down and bottom-up validation of objectives, strategies and programmes and ultimately a document that can provide clarity to the end-user.
6. Remember it’s just a process. New information will keep filtering in as more people are interviewed, generating further cycles of engagement with the strategist. When in doubt, go back and validate and triangulate what you thought you’d learnt in previous weeks. The longer the strategist spends in the field, the more likely he or she will build trust relationships with those likely to be impacted by the strategy.
7. At some stage, you have to stop analysing and get down to the business of writing. New information and strategic options for its use continue to present themselves right till the very end. The more you write, the more likely it is that you arrive at the moment of clarity, the pieces of the jigsaw fall into place and you have a document that can be shared with others. You always know when your job is done.
The Malta National Lifelong Learning Strategy 2020 has now been published for public consultation and can be downloaded from this link. The deck of slides embedded below is a quick overview.