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Fabians float 'learning leave'

Trained unemployed people could fill in for teachers on sabbatical under a radical plan from the left-wing think-tank, reports Jon Slater.

EMPLOYEES should have the right to a month's learning leave each year, according to one of Tony Blair's favourite think tanks.

And if the radical plan wins Government backing, the urge to learn could give others the chance to earn.

Workers on learning leave - including teachers - would be replaced by skilled unemployed people, retrained using Government subsidies.

The programme could give new hope to thousands of middle-aged managers who have found themselves on the dole as a result of firms downsizing. France, Italy, Scandinavian countries and Belgium already use reductions in working time as part of their employment policies.

The proposals would provide a huge boost for lifelong learning. A survey conducted for the Department for Education and Employment found that more than a third of employees with no current plans to engage in learning would do so - if they could have time off work.

Breaks from work could be used to improve basic skills, learn a foreign language or refresh professional knowledge.

Unused leave could be "banked" for the future to allow employees to undertake longer, higher level courses.

Time for Learning, Time for Jobs will be published by the Fabian Society, which is affiliated to Labour and counts Prime Minister Tony Blair and Education Secretary David Blunkett among its members. The report is in the final stages of drafting and is expected to be released at the end of the month.

It argues that the Government's Green Paper on lifelong learning will not be enough to spark a learning revolution, "(It) falls short of removing certain blockages to developing the learning culture British industry and people need. The Government's pound;150 contribution to individual learning accounts...will not be enough to cover lost earnings."

Employers are also unwilling to invest in learning, believing it will "do as much to improve people's chances of changing their employer as to help them do better in their existing job," it says.

Initially the entitlement would be restricted to part-time and temporary workers, but it could be gradually extended to cover the entire workforce.

Employees would be expected to accept a cut in total wages but this would be less than their reduction in hours. Both they and their employers could contribute to sabbatical leave funds which would be used to pay for training and would attract tax relief.

The report claims the reforms would cost the taxpayer between pound;2,000 and pound;4,000 per person removed from unemployment - including the cost of training the existing worker. This compares to around pound;2,900 per person trained through the Government's existing Training for Work programme.

A Government spokesperson said they had already recognised the need to study for underqualified 16 and 17-year-olds but "there are no plans to move beyond that".

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