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Be paid as you learn: it would revolutionise life

03 May 2013

Earning money for continuing education could address problems of benefits, unemployment, and stimulation, argues John Drewry

No one needs to be unemployed. The very word could and should be consigned to the dustbin, along with "benefits". Both are negative, stigmatic words, which could be replaced with "learning" and "earning" respectively.

This is not simply a fudge, or a redefinition of words, but an altered mind-set, with profound implications. If learning were to be repositioned as useful employment, it would follow that people would be paid for it. And if learning was available to everyone, then the only unemployed (other than the sick and severely disabled) would be those who chose not to learn (and therefore not to earn). Paid As You Learn (PAYL) would be essentially voluntary, therefore, but the ultimate carrot over the stick: if you don't learn, you don't earn.

Thus the majority of the benefits system could be replaced at a stroke by PAYL. Children would be paid to go to school, thereby learning from the age of five the value of paid work and of contributing to the family's income.

People without a job, or those who lose their jobs, would be paid to go back to school, thereby providing a permanent safety-net, besides continuing the work ethic. Many disabled people, while more limited in terms of job-availability, could nevertheless get to school. These factors alone would take care of child, unemployment, and disability benefits.

PAYL would operate on a touch-card system, similar to the Oyster card on public transport. You touch in and touch out to register each day's learning attendance. Doctors would have the authority to swipe your card in the event of illness. Registered employers could do the same thing for job applicants. Your card would thus accumulate money on a daily basis, and could act like a debit card for making payments and buying goods.

People who hung around on street corners or shopping centres would do so at their cost, not society's - they would be unpaid if they were not at school. Beggars might get short shrift - why aren't they at school, earning money? Prisoners could ensure that their PAYL went outside to help support their families.

The supposedly indolent families, with their blinds drawn, or the unwaged travellers playing with broadband all day in their mobile homes would really become myths. If they wanted to earn money, they would have to go to school with their children. And children who played truant would not be popular at home: they would just have reduced the family's earnings.

Pensioners could supplement their pensions with PAYL if they chose - for many, it would be a haven for useful activity, keeping their brains active, providing a stimulating social environment, and negating the need for so many day-centres. 

Understandably, PAYL raises the spectre of the permanent student. This is specious. Learning is no easy option, and many would be inspired to look harder for alternative employment.

Others would grasp the training opportunities, and use PAYL as a step to a better job (PAYL would effectively replace many training budgets, in both the public and private sectors.) Yet others might discover the joy of simply learning things. Some would become teachers. At the very worst, is it not better to have someone occupied rather than idle and on benefits?

School discipline would cease to be a problem. A zero-tolerance policy applied to bad, disruptive, or uncooperative behaviour would mean being "sent home". And that would mean no earnings.

In terms of curricula, for children, the concept of PAYL would not have an impact on the national curriculum, or vice versa. Adults should be able to choose, and choice should be as broad as practically possible. It should not be overtly career-driven, although such pathways would be included.

Learning, however, should also become a joy to many, and academic, musical, and sports activities should be available. So should accreditation, grading, and certificates, in order to recognise achievement.

THIS leads to the cost. Despite PAYL's replacing much of the benefits system and training budgets, there is undoubtedly a net cost in terms of extra teachers and buildings. My view is that, in the longer term, this is an investment that would be more than recouped.

PAYL is a vast opportunity to produce a nation of wise people, and for the UK to become the cultural centre of the world. This has huge economic, societal, and marketable advantages.

Only a wiser mass of people will work out how to run the world better than we have. Despite the significant problem (some would say, the thrill) that too many bright, educated people would make life uncomfortable for those "in charge", isn't this a better payback than barbarians at the gates?

John Drewry is a professional writer. He is interested in developing this concept, and welcomes others' views at john@drewrys.com.

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