A new concept in lifelong learning - a Scottish Union Academy - is set to be developed by the Scottish Trades Union Congress and the TUC education service in Scotland. The results of a feasibility study by York Consultants will be put out for consultation at the end of this month - with a final report due early next year.
The initiative will build on the work of the STUC's lifelong learning unit which since 2000 has fostered the work of more than 1,000 work-based learning representatives who promote and advise workers on learning opportunities. So far the unit has supported more than 50 union-generated work and college-based learning projects throughout Scotland.
Speaking at the STUC's recent learning conference in Edinburgh, Grahame Smith, its deputy general secretary, said: "The academy will be a real step change. It will build on existing union activity aimed at promoting lifelong learning - which so far has just scratched the surface."
The plan is also to develop workplace partnerships bringing unions together with each other as well as with employers.
Referring to the STUC's newly launched website (www.scottishunionlearning.com), Mr Smith noted the possibility of online learning and collaboration.
"The academy would not be a provider but would help shape provision in order to meet needs about learning at every level. It would be a broker and co-ordinate provision in mainstream, further and higher education. It would be about fostering everyday skills - and meet the needs of workers, whatever their existing educational experience," he said.
But Mr Smith added: "The academy cannot do it on its own. Workers need to get time off to study - and there has to be a lift on the cap which is currently limiting access to further education."
Otherwise it might end up generating demand without being able to satisfy it.
STUC figures show that 23 per cent of Scots have literacy and numeracy problems and low skill levels. This compares unfavourably with Canada (17 per cent) and Sweden (7 per cent).
In England, the Basic Skills Agency estimated that the cost of low levels of "everyday skills" to a company with 50 to 100 employees was pound;86,000 a year and pound;500,000 to a company with 100,000 employees. This was the result of poor communication, administrative errors, an over-dependence on colleagues and a reluctance to take on extra responsibility.
Tony Stephens, operations director of API Foils at Livingston, said a partnership between the company and GMPU, the print and paper union, encouraged significant numbers of workers to commit themselves to adult learning courses. "The workshops were valuable in removing the stigma associated with adult literacy and numeracy difficulties," Mr Stephens said.
Improvements in core skills increased the ability of employees to cope with change in the workplace, Mr Stephens added. "We care about people. In the process we are generating not only our own success but we are cultivating the next generation. We can develop our machinery - but if we do not also develop our people we will fail."
Also launched at the conference was Unions Work For Learning, in which a range of initiatives is outlined, including measures to encourage firefighters and support workers to sign on for courses such as IT, Spanish, sign language, computing and fork lift driving - as well as retirement planning.
A joint initiative between Usdaw (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers) and Safeway has also resulted in workers attending local colleges.
Sign language courses to help them communicate with customers with hearing impairment, as well as leisure classes, have been popular.
Dec McGrath, the STUC's lifelong learning development manager, said: "We understand the value of courses such as conversational Spanish and basket weaving. But we also see the value in learning to improve working life in terms of career progression and the jobs people do. It is a mixture. We do not want barriers."
The STUC wants to increase the number of its learning representatives from 1,000 to 4,000 over the next five years. "These representatives are creating a demand for learning. We therefore need a channel through which this learning can be accessed in a supportive way," Mr McGrath said.
LIFELONG LEARNING: THE STORY SO FAR
* A further pound;600,000 has been committed by the Scottish Executive to the next round of Scottish Union Learning Fund projects, which will run until 2006, in addition to the existing pound;800,000.
* The training capacity of the modern apprenticeship programme has been increased to 30,000 - and this total was achieved in May, two years early.
* The Big Plus awareness-raising campaign was launched in January, to reduce the stigma of asking for help with reading, writing and numbers and to help raise the literacy and numeracy skills of adults in Scotland.
* A consultation is being launched to explore the possibilities for bodies other than the Scottish Qualifications Authority and higher education institutions to credit rate qualifications for the Scottish Credit and Qualifications Framework.
* The Executive's lifelong learning department is to work with 10 schools across Scotland to develop personal learning planning with leavers. This will link into the work its education department is doing on personal learning planning through the "assessment is for learning" development programme.
* The Executive is running information workshops and providing help with applications to encourage lifelong learning institutions to make better use of European funding.
* "Training for work" is being reformed to become a more demand-led programme, with an emphasis on vocational training for a specific employment goal.
* New guidance setting a benchmark for community learning and development was launched in February. It will be aimed at those providing education in some of the most deprived communities. Learning Connections has put in place a system of support for community learning and development partnerships to help implement the guidance.
* An e-learning panel was set up in September, to encourage collaboration in e-learning.
* A study on quality assurance for lifelong learning in Scotland has been carried out and a final report should be issued shortly.