LET'S not beat about the bush. For the past 20 years British policy on education and training has failed because the nettle has not been grasped. Everyone bangs on about the skills gap but no one is prepared to bring into line those employers who manage to avoid their training responsibilities.
The general orientation of this government has been right but there is little evidence of the kind of growth in learning and training at work that the economy and society really needs. Indeed, some are beginning to say that the demand - as opposed to the need - for lifelong learning just isn't there.
The main reason for this is obvious to anyone who has to juggle work, childcare, housework, shopping, travel, having a bit of leisure and so on.
There simply isn't enough time for workers to enhance their skills or education. Significant progress in workplace learning will never be achieved without a statutory right to paid study time including paid educational leave to attend college courses.
NATFHE is working with a group of unions, David Chaytor MP and a few backbenchers to seek to influence the next government to introduce a statutory right to paid study leave.
This government has introduced a right for all workers aged 16 to 18, without five GCSEs, to attend college for one day per week. The Liberal Democrats conference called for this to be extended to 24-year-olds.
We need a manifesto commitment from the Labour party that they will go further and extend this right to all adults, completely fulfilling their obligation to introduce paid educational leave schemes under Article 15 of the EU Social Chapter.
Many argue for lifelong learning because of "ocupational mobility" - in plain terms losing your job every few years and having to move to a different one or changing jobs with the same employer. But there is little point training school or college leavers and for those who lose their jobs while ignoring those in work.
To meet the economic and social needs of today's world people need access to a broad education as well as work-specific training. A Department for Education and Employment survey found that a third of all employees with no plans to engage in learning would do so if given paid time off.
In Belgium there is a right to 240 hours' paid-study time a year; in Italy to 150 hours. There are schemes in other countries such as Norway France and Denmark. A statutory entitlement to up to five days' paid study time a year as part of a training and education programme - preferably agreed with the unions in the workplace - would be a major step forward.
The link with unions is important particularly for part-time and temporary workers whose needs are usually ignored.
By and large, it is the full-time workers with higher education who get the most access to paid study time. But less than 1 per cent of the 23 per cent assessed with poor basic skills are on education programmes linked to the workplace. What schemes there are have usually been the result of union initiatives such as Unison's Return to Learn or the TUC's Bargaining for Skills Project.
The TUC passed three resolutions this year calling for an entitlement to paid study time which could prove as important to the next generation of workers as the minimum wage has been to this.
Paul Mackney is the general secretary of NATFHE