Employers should not be handed the keys to the National Retraining Scheme if the government is serious about supporting the millions of older people who need it most, according to a former senior skills civil servant.

Instead, the new initiative should focus on the skills needs of people rather than those of employers, insists Dr Sue Pember, who has worked with 10 skills ministers and eight education secretaries.

In her report on the scheme, written on behalf of NCFE and the Campaign for Learning, Dr Pember warned that if it were employer-led, the priority would be to “assist employers to retrain their employees in new roles and occupations rather than make them redundant”.

Only an adult focussed National Retraining Scheme can meet the needs of all adults

The “problem with such a limited definition” is that it will “miss millions of adults” who are not employees, such as workers on zero-hour contracts, and agency and temporary staff, as well as “the growing ranks of the self-employed and the redundant or unemployed”.

She stressed that a “key component should be an earnings reimbursement fund for self-employed workers – perhaps loan-based – to cover some of the costs associated with loss of earnings on training days undertaken by the self-employed”.

Plans to launch the NRS were unveiled in the autumn budget, when chancellor Philip Hammond earmarked £64 million for pilots.

A total of £30 million was to be invested in the scheme to test the use of artificial intelligence and innovative education technology in online digital skills courses.

Meanwhile, £34 million was pledged to expand “innovative” construction training programmes, to train people for jobs such as ground-workers, bricklayers, roofers and plasterers.

The industrial strategy published soon after contained plans for a “national retraining partnership”, which met for the first time on March 5 to begin developing the “historic” NRS.

Made up of top government officials including Mr Hammond and education secretary Damian Hinds, as well as the Confederation for British Industry and the TUC, the primary goal of the body is to improve and spread adult learning and retraining.

But in her report, entitled ‘Shaping the new National Retraining Scheme’, Dr Pember warned there is still a sense that it is “promoting the NRS in public whilst trying to work out what the scheme actually is”.

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She recognised the “commitment that the scheme will be in place by the end of this parliament”, but warned the “clock is ticking”.

She also recommended that an NRS should be part of a wider lifelong-learning strategy that “supports solutions to many of our social and productivity issues, sets the framework for local strategies and brings clarity to all existing programmes and infrastructure”.

“A national entitlement to a fully-funded full level two qualification for all adults should be introduced irrespective of age or labour market status,” she added.

Adult learner loans covering the cost of fees at levels three to six should be replaced with an entitlement to fully-funded provision for “priority qualifications and subject areas”.

She also wants the government to “make an urgent decision” on how to replace European social funding after Brexit.

The ESF is cash that the UK receives, as a member state of the EU, to increase job opportunities and help people to improve their skill levels, particularly those who find it difficult to get work.

The current funding round, which runs from 2014 to 2020, is thought to be worth about £2.3 billion across England.

A Department for Education spokesperson said: “It is crucial we get this right – that is why we continue to work closely with key groups including the Confederation of British Industry and Trade Union Congress so the scheme is spot on for both learners and employers.”

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