From education to employment

Union Learning Representatives Driving Skills in UK, Part One – A report by Vijay Pattn

To fashion a spin analogous to our present government, recent statistics would have you believe that the percentage of our workforce educated, skilled and qualified to acceptable levels is on the increase. Which, undoubtedly, it is.

Yet there remains an underlying truth; that although the years 1997 to 2004 saw an increase of 7% in the proportion of the UK workforce qualified to Level 2 standards, there are an estimated 7.5 million adults who fall short of this level, lacking basic numeracy and literacy skills. And the cyclical cataclysm engulfing workforces across the nation seems to hinge on a simple premise, that employers are unwilling to release their staff for training, lest they fail to reap the full benefits of training below craft level.


The problem at least seems to have been categorised by the recent White Paper on FE, as “Employers, who too often feel that colleges and training providers are not responsive enough to their needs”¦” evidently shows that the government is listening to employers. And how it listened, perhaps happened rather inadvertently. 1997 saw a fresh, new and lively government committed to change sweep into the corridors of power. Hot on the heels of their oft-quoted mantra “Education, Education, Education”, the then Secretary of State for Education and Employment established the National Advisory Group for Continuing Education and Lifelong Learning.

Professor Bob Fryer chaired the committee and in his report of the year, “Learning for the Twenty-First Century” (1997), he placed a great emphasis on an inclusive approach to lifelong learning. Using the term “extensive partnerships”, he outlined his ideal to include trade unions in lifelong learning, saying: “The active involvement of trade unions will assist in legitimising the purposes and processes of workplace learning in the eyes of their members”¦”

Forming an important chain reaction, the report led directly to the creation of the Union Learning Fund (ULF) in 1998, of which their chief objective was to “increase the capacity of trade unions to promote learning and be learning organisations”. And central to this, came the Union Learning Representative, to which the ULF would “promote, encourage and support the development and capacity of”.

Bargaining for Skills

However, this market-led approach to addressing the employer’s needs derives its origins from a much more controversial era, harking back to the Training and Enterprise Councils of the Thatcherite 80’s. The TUC “Bargaining for Skills” projects, run in tandem with the TEC’s, were developed primarily to raise union awareness in workforce development, resulting in a number of project workers whose remit it was to implement government led “products” for the burgeoning adult skills market.

The National Vocational Qualification (NVQ) and Modern Apprenticeship were all borne of this new strategy to target employer needs. And from this, we have the illustrious beginnings of the modern Union Learning Representative. Their official formalisation took place in the first year of Labour’s presidency, following the Learning and Services Task Group’s mission to “develop practical proposals for implementation”.

Established by the TUC, this task group’s report proposed a national network of ULR’s, of which their roles would include identifying learning needs of employers; negotiating with management for provision of the skills “products”; acting as advocates for lifelong learning and providing employees with the help to overcome initial reluctance to learn, and subsequent learning problems caused by a lack of confidence.

Vijay Pattni

Read the second instalment of Vijay Pattni’s look at Union Learning right here!

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