A more studied way to work

Paid study leave would be an investment in Britain's future
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The Independent Online

This week, Parliament will witness a small but potentially very significant milestone towards vocational training in Britain. Because this week, Labour MP David Chaytor will launch a Private Members Bill to introduce paid educational leave. The idea being that every British worker would be entitled to a set number of paid working days a year away from his or her job to learn new skills.

This week, Parliament will witness a small but potentially very significant milestone towards vocational training in Britain. Because this week, Labour MP David Chaytor will launch a Private Members Bill to introduce paid educational leave. The idea being that every British worker would be entitled to a set number of paid working days a year away from his or her job to learn new skills.

Sounds sensible? Unfortunately, it is unlikely the Bill will feature in the Government's parliamentary schedule. Let's be clear about this - the current government has taken some important steps regarding work-based training. For instance, young workers are now allowed paid time off for study. But much more is needed.

Anecdotal evidence points to a severe shortage in the provision and, crucially, take-up of workplace training. Just take a look around your own workplace: how many days training did you and your colleagues take last year? The chan-ces are very little. Why? Too often, it will have probably seemed there just wasn't time.

Just a few months ago, the Government's own National Skills Taskforce reported that over a third of workers said family commitments prevented them from learning and 25 per cent said they were too busy with work.

And this is not surprising considering how many hours we already put in. British people work an average of three hours longer than other Europeans every week, and a whopping five hours more than the Italians and Belgians who, incidentally, do enjoy paid educational leave. Those five extra hours a week - around 30 days a year - is exactly the amount of time Belgians spend improving their skills. Wouldn't it be better if that time was spent learning new skills rather than a desperate attempt to impress the boss by clocking up ever more hours?

The other crucial factor in the workplace training game is money. Any system of educational leave worth its salt would have to be paid. The reason for that is not difficult to understand. If you take off one day a week to study unpaid you are looking at a 20-per-cent drop in your income. You may be able to cope with that if you are single or on a higher salary, but for most of us with mortgages to pay and children to support, it just isn't an option. And yet it is often people in this bracket who have the greatest need for training.

Also, at the moment, work-based training is a rather hit and miss affair. Firstly, it is a voluntary system so there are employers who prioritise training and those who don't. There is also an imbalance on who gets access to it. "Rising stars" or people favoured for whatever reason, are far more likely to benefit over the common herd.

Take the most extreme case. Let's say a single mum who was on benefits when the Tories were in power takes a job in the local call centre. As any parent knows, balancing child care, a job and a house can be a nightmare, even when there are two of you and you are on a decent income. But what if you were by yourself, in a job which pays £10,000 a year, with a house to keep, childcare to organise and children's demands to cope with? How much time, money and, crucially, energy would be left over for the mother's own training needs?

Putting work-based training on a statutory basis on a par with annual leave would be a fairer, more equitable, and far-sighted investment in Britain's future. There is an enormous reservoir of untapped talent out there and a huge thirst for it. It may sound like a radical leap in the dark, but most European countries make some provision for paid educational leave, and when you think about it, it is just common sense.

I believe a shift is needed in the way we look at work-based training. Society does not regard full-time education as an intolerable burden - it sees it as an investment in our future. There is no reason why work-based training should be any different. We at UNIFI, along with several other unions, MPs like David Chaytor and other educational groups are determined paid educational leave will be a reality.

In our mind, there is little doubt that whoever wins the next election will have to deal with this question, so it would be for the best if plans were laid now. We believe that time should be found for paid educational leave and that time is now.

The writer is general secretary of the 160,000-strong finance workers union, UNIFI

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