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Equity and lifelong learning: lessons from workplace learning in Scottish SMEs

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Workplace learning is identified by UK and Scottish governments as an important means of achieving social mobility, and therefore producing a more equal society. However, there appears to be a patchwork of provision and funding arrangements, making it difficult for employers and employees to identify suitable routes. Analysis of large scale survey data at European and Scottish levels shows that existing inequalities are further entrenched by differential access to and participation in workplace learning, where those with existing high levels of qualification have far greater opportunities. This paper draws on data drawn from an EU Sixth Framework funded study of lifelong learning, focusing in particular on case studies of six Scottish SMEs which are used to identify some of the reasons underlying inequalities in access to workplace learning. Whilst all of the SMEs had a positive approach to employee development, they differed in the type of work they undertook and the composition of the workforce. Employees in knowledge intensive organisations were immersed in a culture where on-going learning was an expected part of working life, and was driven by both employers' and employees' expectations. By way of contrast, more traditional manufacturing and training organisations had a more restricted approach to learning, encouraging employees to undertake courses which would give them the skills to do their jobs more effectively, but with less focus on their wider growth and development. All firms treated lifelong learning with some degree of scepticism, ultimately prioritising company profitability over individual employee development and seeing the two as sometimes at variance. Given the Scottish government's desire to promote the demand side of skill development, the barriers posed by employers' attitudes need to be addressed, particularly in relation to lower-skilled workers in manufacturing firms, who might have less intrinsic motivation, but are also less likely to receive encouragement and support from their employer.
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Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Centre for Research in Education Inclusion and Diversity, University of Edinburgh, Scotland

Publication date: November 1, 2009

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