A new trade union education project aimed at lorry drivers on Merseyside is about to give the term "distance learning" a whole different meaning.
"It's one sector we find just misses out completely on the education side," said Ann McCall, Transport and General Workers' Union education organiser for the North-west.
"It's because of the hours and the distance they drive. Drivers are dead keen to see what's available, but they don't know what will fit in with their hours. They have no chance of promotion because they're out on the road."
The project is being run by the TGWU in partnership with the local training and enterprise council and FE colleges in the North-west. Shop stewards are being trained to assess drivers' education needs, and learning materials will be produced on cassette tape or CD for use en route.
This is just one scheme by a union other than those representing teachers to have won grants from the Union Learning Fund, given apound;6 million boost by Education Secretary David Blunkett at the Trades Union Congress last month.
Unions have a long tradition of education, going back to the creation of Mechanics' Institutes, the Workers' Educational Association and adult education colleges.
Over this century most unions have developed their own educational programmes, built on ensuring that their shop stewards had the skills and knowledge to represent the workforce.
After the conflict and curbs on union power of the Thatcher years, today unions are seeking a new role for themselves, one that harks back to this self-improvement tradition. They are seizing the initiative in education and training.
Dr John Lloyd, national education officer of the Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union, said: "This has to be seen in the context of trade unions' wider concerns about, frankly, decline and irrelevance. And as we search about for reputable things to do that improve our reputation, force employers very gently to respect us again and to deal with us again, education and training and the expansion of skills in the workforce is a very good way of winning that new respect.
"Lifelong learning offers us a very real and reputable and successful workplace-based activity in a world in which perhaps collective bargaining isn't so important."
Unions have become increasingly keen to develop partnerships to this end. The public service union, Unison, works with employers to deliver programmes such as Return to Learn, which started in 1989 and can now boast more than 10,000 graduates.
The TGWU has played an important part in employee development programmes, like the Ford Employee Development Assistance Programme. The TUC has its own education service and runs Bargaining for Skills projects in partnership with training and enterprise councils throughout England and Wales.
Now the TUC's commitment to education and training has stepped up a gear. At Blackpool it approved a range of proposals put forward by its learning services task group, chaired by Jimmy Knapp. These include the creation of a national network of union learning representatives, heavily involving unions in the University for Industry, and a strategy on basic and key skills.
Liz Smith, TUC learning services national officer, said: "We see union learning representatives as being the key to making anything happen at the base. Policies are very important, negotiating with the Government is extremely important.
"But we need the people with the know-how on the ground, to talk to employers, to encourage members, to promote opportunities, to talk to colleges, TECs etc. So a lot of the focus is on how we can give that role, though it hasn't got the legal backing, something approaching the health and safety reps' position."
Another development is the availability of grants from the Union Learning Fund. Forty-five awards have been made to unions to develop education schemes, which vary enormously.
The Young People Project in Lincoln won a pound;50,000 bid, and is run by a partnership of the AEEU, Lincolnshire education authority and local engineering firms. The scheme aims to take disaffected 14 and 15-year-olds and give them experience in an engineering workshop. Union members will become mentors, working with them one-to-one.
Neville Jackson, AEEU regional officer, said: "We want them to be able to reach the position where, when they come up for their final year they can say to an employer, 'Look, I have done this practical course.' A lot of young people are marginalised, and we believe we have a way of bringing them back in."
The Manufacturing, Science and Finance union won three bids. One of the projects is the development of a "virtual learning centre" at its residential training centre, Whitehall College in Bishop's Stortford, Hertfordshire, which will allow members to study via the Internet.
Smaller unions won awards, too. The National Union of Journalists gained pound;50,000 to run a computer skills course for freelancers with no access to training provided by employers. And the broadcasting and entertainment union, BECTU, won pound;44,000 to train union officers to give casual workers careers guidance.
FOUR OF THE BIGGEST UNIONS AND THEIR LEARNING FUND PROJECTS
Britain's biggest union, Unison, which has 1.4 million members, also claims to lead the field in education.
A wide range of courses is offered through its Open College system, and with the Workers' Educational Association it pioneered the Return To Learn scheme. The union now has some 150 workplace partnerships across the UK.
Unison has four projects supported by the Union Learning Fund. One, run with Suffolk County Council, gives care assistants the chance to train for a diploma in social work. The union claims its work in education is born out of the needs of its members, many of whom are in low-paid public service jobs.
Of the Transport and General Workers' union's 800,000 members, some 10,000 take part in the union's education programme each year.
As well as training its own shop stewards, the Tamp;GWU has increasingly become involved in vocational training. Many courses are accredited with colleges and universities, giving members access to further and higher education.
It is also involved in employee development programmes with companies such as Ford, Rover, ICI and United Distillers.
Every member gets free access to the union's national home study course, accredited by the University of Hull.
The TGWU won three bids from the Union Learning Fund, including its scheme for lorry drivers in the North-west, and company learning centres in the Midlands.
The Amalgamated Electrical and Engineering Union's tradition of education for workers goes back to 1852.
Today the union, with 725,000 members, has its own vocational training centres and runs many programmes in partnership with employers. It trains around 1,400 shop stewards a year.
The union has also instituted an "after-sales service" for members, going back at intervals to check that new skills are being put to use.
It won three Union Learning Fund bids, including a scheme with the University of Hull to help the older unemployed, and a partnership involving Coca-Cola for youngsters in Wakefield.
The Manufacturing Science and Finance union has its own residential training centre - Whitehall College inBishop's Stortford. From traditionally running courses for its representatives, since the 1980s the union has widened provision for its 425,000 members. It offers open and distance learning accredited by the University of Leeds, summer schools and an annual family learning week.
MSF won three bids from the Union Learning Fund. One is to develop study on the Internet, another involves the voluntary sector in the North-west, and a third is in the financial services sector.