Joanna worked as a cleaner in her local university. Her area was the Law Department. Vacuuming and tidying around the desks she began to get interested in the legal books and papers. Encouraged by her Union Learning Rep and with support from University managers she got some time off and help with course fees. First came A level Law. Then the Access course. Then the Law degree. Many years later she is now teaching law in the same Dept.

A heart-warming success story. But what if there had been no sympathetic managers? No supportive Union Rep? Joanna’s story is a dream for most workers. Yet low skills and hence low productivity are the Achilles Heel of the UK economy. We desperately need to help the millions of workers who want to learn at work but do not have much chance. Lack of time is by far the greatest obstacle to adult learning. A Right for workers to Time Off to learn is a big part of the solution.

Without legal backing the Right to Learn will remain a slogan. Working people need legal rights to persuade reluctant managers to agree paid time off. Seasoned political and employment experts will throw up their hands in horror. Surely managers will be a aghast at the idea of yet another legal burden? But soft – fear not – such a right already exists. The “Right to Request Time To Train” has been around for 10 years. It is quietly successful but hasn’t achieved more because it is largely unknown.

When it was introduced, in 2010 at the end of the last Labour Government, many were sceptical. Surely a “Right” simply “to ask” is pretty feeble? The same was said of the sister Right to Request Flexible Working. Yet both have worked well. Three quarters of requests are agreed quickly. A 2017 study by the Institute of Employment Rights of the Right to Request Time to Train found that managers welcomed it. Hard to reach employees were encouraged to attend courses. Managers were surprised at the appetite for learning and encouraged to invest in the lower skilled and low paid – workers who usually receive the least chances to learn.

Union scepticism was also challenged. Simply starting a conversation made a big difference. Managers were not always hostile. The climate around learning often changed from cynicism to cooperation. Managers worked with Union Learning Reps to make the case to their senior managers for more investment in learning and better forms of training. Of course, it was limited. But although the Right to Request applies only to training linked to work, that can be interpreted broadly. Almost any training helps literacy, numeracy, digital skills, self-organisation – and improves employee relations. Managers can of course refuse requests, but they must provide a reasoned written response within two weeks. Inconsistent or discriminatory refusals can be challenged at a Tribunal.

This is not mad radical lefty nonsense. Legal rights for workers to learn are widespread. In Japan, the “Human Resources Development Promotion Act” stipulates that Employers must support skill development. In Austria, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium, and France there are a variety of legal rights, for workers and often unions, which support learning. In the USA the “Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act” (an Obama innovation) gives rights to low skilled workers both unemployed and employed – the federal Act being interpreted variously at State level. Estonia, Sweden, Slovakia, and Canada have similar Allowances and support for training aimed at both unemployed and employed; tailored to in-demand skills.

A 2019 OECD study – “Getting Skills Right” – found many ways of supporting learning at work. Many countries suffered from a lack of awareness, as with the UK‘s own Right to Request. The research found that effective systems depended on a network of supportive public agencies, adult learning professionals, HR and Training Professionals and very often Unions. An effective Right to Learn at work needs to be part of an effective workplace learning ecosystem.

There are many ways that the Right to Request Time to Train could of course be strengthened. No worker should go for years with no training. Every employer should be required to have an effective training plan. Help for the low paid and most vulnerable should be prioritised with guarantees of minimum paid time off and a much wider range of eligible courses. At the same time, the Levy could be broadened beyond just apprentices, thus giving employers an incentive to spend more widely on training. Tax relief and grants could also help pay for training, certainly in priority sectors, regions, and occupations. The whole UK learning at work ecosystem needs reform and strengthening.  Above all, communication is essential. Giving the Right to Request a far higher profile would do more than anything to increase its impact.

When the UK emerges from the pandemic, the world of work will have radically changed. Recent reports from the Resolution Foundation, the Fabian Society and Community the Union have all highlighted the danger of massively increased inequality; a further hollowing out of the workforce with fewer middle skill jobs, and more precarious low skilled jobs. We need a radical transformation of learning at work to help everyone, particularly the most vulnerable, adapt to the massively changed economy. Simply carrying on as “normal” would be a kick in the teeth to the millions who have endured hardship and often great suffering during the pandemic. Now is the time to rebuild our learning at work system, starting with much stronger rights to paid time off to learn at work.

Tom Wilson was the Head of TUC Education between 2003 and 2015 and is now busily retired.