Paid educational leave was one of the flagship initiatives of the 1970s movement for lifelong education. The idea of paid time off to learn was widely supported by trade unions and social democrats, and embraced by the OECD as a central part of its plans for recurrent education.
Its high point came in 1974, when the International Labour Organisation adopted a convention on PEL, subsequently ratified by 34 member states. In the UK, it was warmly mentioned in the Russell Report, if in rather general terms. And a number of local initiatives developed, in the public and private sectors.
Since the 1970s, though, much of the steam has gone out of the PEL initiative. The steady erosion of trade union membership, as well as the demise of the large state-owned industries, played a part. Some local forms of PEL survive, such as the staff learning account at the University of Warwick, but otherwise you rarely hear about it.
Not in France and Germany, though, where PEL is alive and well. The right to a ‘congé individuel de formation’ first passed into law in 1971. The law has been amended several times subsequently, and the right – to paid leave for up to 1,200 hours in a lifetime – is conditional on certain criteria, but continues to exist, and is widely used.
Thirteen of the sixteen German Länder have laws entitling workers to at least five days of paid leave per annum for the purposes of study. The worker decides what he or she will study during their Bildungsurlaub, at their employers’ expense; the laws prohibit employers from using it to substitute for training.
Now the German trade union confederation has launched a campaign to publicise the right, and encourage wider take-up. Boardly, its ten-point argument is that PEL promotes civic engagement, democratic citizenship, confidence, and competence. Their tenth and final point is that ‘Bildungsurlaub is fun’.