Reaching parts others don't

One criticism levelled at the Union Learning Fund is the lack of time to develop projects. Ann McCall, of the TGWU, said of its project on Merseyside: "The biggest problem is that they have only given us six months to start and finish it."

There are other, wider questions, too. If unions are to become such good providers of education and training, doesn't that let employers off the hook?

Some in the TUC feel that the bigger unions could and should do more to push for employer provision of education and training.

Sarah Howard, director of education for the MSF, said: "It's not simply a case of us wanting employers to do more. It's also a case of we have an obligation to put it as a priority on our bargaining agenda."

But Dr John Fisher, director of education and research for the TGWU, believes that ultimately unions are in the best position to get learning to those who need it.

"We have always said in the unions that in terms of lifelong learning and adult education, we reach the parts other beers don't reach. If we look at the whole history of adult education, it's primarily middle-class people with money and time on their hands - and usually educated people.

"How would you get to working class people who leave school as soon as they can? They're in a culture where they don't stay on and then they get a manual job. They have not got a lot of money. How do you get those people back into lifelong learning? We say the only way to do it is through the trade unions. "

The TGWU, MSF and other unions are now lobbying for a statutory framework for education and training in the workplace, with paid educational leave and more funding.

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