The former education system has failed many. The system seemed to warn under-achievers that "if you first don't succeed, then don't try and try again". The result has been devastating. One in five adults has literacy and numeracy problems. Less than half of adults have a level three qualification, and a staggering one in six has no qualifications whatsoever. Also, a third of employees have never been offered training by their present employer.
The Department for Education and Employment has begun to tackle many of these issues. Other government departments are also now recognising the importance of skills in enhancing competitiveness and tackling social exclusion. The Prime Minister has asked the Performance and Innovation Unit of the Cabinet Office to carry out a review of workforce development by the autumn. Under his "productivity initiative", the Chancellor of the Exchequer has asked the Confederation of British Industry and the Trades Union Congress to join forces to make recommendations on how we can raise the skills of the workforce. Our joint group is concentrating on those individuals who have not achieved up to a level three qualification. We are looking at both practical assistance and the incentives employers need to support them through their learning.
The Learning and Skills Council is potentially a very powerful body. For example, its Adult Learners Committee, which I chair, is responsible for funding as much as pound;3.5 billion of training provision. We are already drafting a workforce development plan which will clearly set out the principles and criteria whereby this funding will be spent. We hope that it will target much of this funding on raising the skill levels of those with few or no quaifications.
There is now recognition that employers should take full responsibility for training their workforce to recognised standards since they benefit directly from such investment. Employees, however, often require wider learning. Some may need basic skills which they did not acquire on leaving school and, as such, the state provides them with free tuition. Others may want to access IT or other courses related to self-development. But there are barriers to such opportunities. Advice and guidance might not be available to help them choose learning which meets their needs. Tuition costs might be too high for people with low incomes. Childcare might not be available. Employer commitment may not be there. Study time might be difficult to fit in around shifts or family responsibilities.
The National Skills Task Force stopped short, however, of proposing any obligation on employers to release employees for training. That is why unions support the Paid Educational Leave Campaign's proposal for a statutory entitlement to such leave. This is already the norm in many European countries, such as France, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The next government should look at ways of extending paid educational leave to the adult workforce as a whole. It requires a new learning culture in this country - co-investment in learning. Employers would grant paid educational leave for employees to study at a college, university, and workplace learning centre andor online. Employees would do some of the study in their own time. The Government could then subsidise provision through course discounts targeted on the low-earning new learner.
This general election offers a great opportunity to campaign around the development of our workforce in a modern economy.
John Monks is general secretary of the Trades Union Congress and vice-chair of the Learning and Skills Council