If we accept the notion of a learning society, it seems logical to conclude that some social arrangements promote learning more than others. It also follows that different social arrangements are likely to promote different types of learning. Most attempts to explore the Learning Society, and identify the different factors which promote lifelong learning, have focused on either the prospects facing individuals (particularly ‘access factors’ associated with entry into learning programmes or the barriers which prevent entry) or on the fate of nations and other large organisations (here, the focus tends to be on policy issues or the impact of external change factors). Our work within the ESRC Learning Society Programme1, while accepting the importance of both individual and macro levels, focused on what might be called the meso-level of institutional environments and the belief systems of those who inhabit and shape them. In particular, our work was concerned to find out whether patterns of participation and achievement in organised learning were associated with those intermediate relationships, shared values and habits known to some sociologists as ‘social capital’ (Bourdieu, 1985; Putnam, 1993; Coleman, 1994; Riddell et al, 1999).
This paper draws on a detailed empirical study of schools attainment and adult learning in Northern Ireland and Scotland. At the outset, in 1995, we asked whether there was less adult learning in Scotland and Northern Ireland than elsewhere in the United Kingdom (Field and Schuller, 1995). We noted that there seemed to be strong evidence in both societies of an apparent divergence between very high rates of attainment in initial education on the one hand, and reports of relatively low levels of participation by adults on the other.