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TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady

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The government will struggle to get enough adult learners to take up their entitlement to free A-level equivalent training if ministers scrap the union learning fund, says a new TUC report "Getting every adult to level 3: How the Union Learning Fund supports the government’s adult skills aspirations" published today (17 Nov). 

In September, the prime minister announced that all adults will be able to study for their first level 3 qualification (an A level or equivalent, such as a BTEC level 3) free of charge. The new level 3 entitlement will start in spring 2021. 

The crisis in UK skills and productivity is well-known – 40% of young people do not achieve a level 3 qualification by age 25. 

The TUC welcomed the new level 3 entitlement. But since this announcement, the education department have proposed scrapping the union learning fund – which helps get working people into job-relevant skills and training.  

The new entitlement will be a “paper promise” without support for learners  

The TUC says that without help to get adult learners back into learning and help them stick to the courses, the new level 3 entitlement will be a “paper promise” that only small numbers will use.   

Adult learners are often reluctant to get back into learning, facing barriers such as getting time to learn, managing their caring responsibilities, understanding their entitlements and battling low confidence.   

Even where courses are free of charge, the number of adult learners is falling. For example, the number of adults achieving first level 2 qualifications (GCSEs or equivalent) in English and maths has fallen by 30% since 2010 despite these courses being free.  

Union learning is a rare success story in adult learning. It’s open to both union members and non-members.  

Union learning reps get people on to courses who would not previously have considered learning, help them stick to the course and progress, and broker time-off with employers to train.  

This practical support is a “crucial help” that makes paper entitlements to free learning a reality for working adults who need to improve their skills.   

The independent review of the union learning fund showed unions excel at supporting less confident learners, and at persuading those with few or no qualifications to take up the training opportunities open to them. Seven in ten learners said they would not have taken part in learning or training without union support. This rises to around 8 in 10 of those with no prior qualifications. 

Union learning helps get reluctant adult learners the basic skills they need to progress – and in many cases helps working people get their first ever qualifications.  

In the last year, the union learning fund helped 37,700 learners take up level 2 training courses in English and maths. This is a 48 per cent increase on the target of 25,600 set by the education department. Getting learners to achieve at level 2 is a gateway to getting more learners onto level 3 courses.  

The TUC argues that union learning will make a huge contribution to getting a critical mass of learners to take up their entitlement to a free first level 3 qualification, through helping learners get the prior qualifications and skills to take up the entitlement, and through helping learners get back into and stick to learning.   

However, the Secretary of State for Education Gavin Williamson has proposed to scrap the £12 million annual union learning fund from spring 2021 – just as free access to new level 3 training courses is introduced. 

“Union learning is a rare success story in adult skills. The union learning fund has helped millions of learners gain qualifications in English, maths and ICT over the last 20 years, especially those with few or no prior qualifications.  

“If ministers want their new skills policy to work, then they need to think about how to engage and support reluctant learners. That’s what union learning excels at – getting working people who missed out at school back into learning. Without this crucial help, the new entitlement is just a paper promise. 

“Union learning makes a massive contribution to the UK’s adult skills. The proposal to end it in spring 2021 is both puzzling and counterproductive. If we want to boost productivity and help the economy recover faster, then the prime minister must reject the proposal to scrap the union learning fund.” 

Frances O’Grady, General Secretary, TUC

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