From education to employment

unionlearn Director Liz Smith went to the DfES headquarters to find out what the tr

“The role of the trade unions in education is probably one of the great untold stories and the huge success of the Union Learning Fund and unionlearn is that the trade union movement has used its inherent feel for education and training and matched that to the kind of things that government and industry needs for a strong economy”, Mr Johnson said.

Liz Smith: “What are the key things unionlearn can offer to help the government achieve the goals in its Skills Strategy?”

“We”re moving into another dimension now with the introduction of Train 2 Gain and the NVQ Level 2 entitlement and the NVQ Level 3 entitlement for 19 to 25-year-olds. This is an enormous investment by the government and an enormous reprioritisation.

“In the Skills Strategy, we agreed with the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and interested parties that we had to tackle the scandal that 15 million adults who didn”t have the best chance at school first time around are functionally innumerate and 13 million functionally illiterate.

“They”re not thick, they”re not stupid: they”re the product of educational under-investment for many years, mainly through the Tory years of the “80s and early “90s.

“The trade union movement is really well placed here, because you can have all the managers and men and women in suits lecturing people and trying their best to enthuse people about picking up new skills, but the union learning rep ““ the person you trust, who’s got no angle in this, who gets no bonus out of it ““ is enormously powerful: that’s why we want to increase the number of ULRs from 14,000 at the moment to 22,000 by 2010.

“Since 1997, our problem has not been supply, it’s been creating the demand from employees and employers, making this whole system demand-led and prioritising Skills for Life and Level 2 and Level 3 NVQs: it’s a new era.

“The Leitch review is likely to crank us up to another dimension beyond 2010, and I think your time has come”.

“One of the many good things about the development of union learning is that it’s bringing more women into the trade union movement. How do you see the government addressing that issue of getting more women into the workforce and progressing to higher levels?”

“On the first point about ULRs, I think this is an extraordinary plus for the trade union movement, because it’s not just more women are coming forward, but, as I understand it, more people from ethnic minorities, more part-time workers and more younger people who would not exactly rush to take up the job of branch treasurer!

“But I think the union movement could be doing more ““ I”ve always thought this, I thought this when I was general secretary. People like Jeannie Drake in my own union have been banging this drum for a long time and there are unions which are exemplary in this like Unison, where there’s a majority of women wherever you go, which I think is a constitutional insistence.

“But the trade union movement still sometimes seems like a macho world where the things that are important are the things that were important 30 years ago.”There’s no hiding the fact that back in the Post Office in the 1970s, we had a lot of battles effectively to keep women out in the sense that we didn”t want part-time workers because “they would be only doing it for pin money” ““ I remember those arguments.

“The phase we”re at now ““ as the Women at Work commission has pointed out ““ is that all those barriers have been broken down and companies are very happy to have flexible working, but the higher up you go in an organisation, the harder it gets to work flexibly”.

“What’s the key contribution you think employers should make to upskilling the workforce?”

“We”ve answered the basic criticism of employers, which is that they were always peripheral to the way we shaped vocational training and Apprenticeships and foundation degrees. Educationalists and ministers told them what skills they needed and by and large got it wrong!

“Now the big change in the Skills Strategy is that we”ve invited employers to come centre stage with their trade unions. The skills partnership through the Sector Skills Councils is about saying to employers: “You are now at the heart of this ““ you now shape the training”.

“In the face of the challenge from China and India in particular, you cannot go on with this lackadaisical approach to skills. Employers had a very good point about putting employers at the heart of this ““ we”ve done that now with the Sector Skills Councils. Now it’s to the next phase about how we”re going to use them”.

“What are your top priorities at the department?”

“First, to close the social class gap in education at all levels: the gap has closed considerably, but 75 per cent of children whose parents are professionals will get five or more decent GCSEs and only 30 per cent whose parents aren”t qualified will.

“Secondly, looked-after children: there’s only 60,000 of them but they get a terrible deal. They have a corporate parent in the local authority who treats them like their own parents did by dumping them in the worst schools.

“Thirdly, this whole agenda of adult skills has been the forgotten bit of the education system ““ attracting fewer resources and less interest, even though millions depend on it for their education. We will not tolerate poor provision in further education, but it’s wider than just FE, it’s about Train 2 Gain and training at the workplace”.

With thanks to Alan Johnson, Liz Smith and unionlearn.

Next week: Boris Johnson MP and Stephen Williams MP talk exclusively to FE News

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