The biggest obstacle to the improving the skills of the UK workforce isn’t funding, says Liz Rees. It’s not a lack of enthusiasm from employers, flaws in the school system or any failings on the part of FE providers. The main challenge, the new director of Unionlearn believes, is persuading the adults who need to improve their literacy and numeracy skills to acknowledge that they need help.
“It’s really hard to reach people,” she says. “Their skills are highly evolved for keeping people away. They just say, ‘I can cope, don’t worry.’ It’s important that there’s someone there to say, ‘You don’t have to do that, we can make that easier for you.’ ”
Having children can often be a trigger for seeking support, Rees adds. “It’s often having kids at school who want help with their reading or homework that makes parents feel bad and that want to do something about it. That helps us to get things moving.”
And with the advent of digital technology, Unionlearn, the training and skills wing of the Trades Union Congress (TUC), is able to harness new ways of reaching out to people across the country, such as the Citizen Maths Mooc (massive open online course).
“Technology has transformed what we can do,” Rees says. “We’re always working out ways of how you can support people in learning. There’s a lot of data about how Britain’s really falling behind other countries. We know that the work we can do can make a real difference there. Union reps can reassure people that addressing those problems won’t give them more problems, won’t cause them to be made redundant. It’s important that message is brought back to front and centre stage.”
And meeting this need is Unionlearn’s raison d’être. Since it was founded 10 years ago, it has become one of the most recognisable names in the FE sector, thanks to its work with providers and unions across the country to improve the UK’s skills (see box, opposite).
Levy is ‘real progress’
One thing that the organisation has long campaigned for is the introduction of a levy on businesses to pay for apprenticeships. In 2015, its wish finally came true when a levy was announced by chancellor George Osborne.
Rees, who took on her new role in November when her predecessor Tom Wilson retired, admits that she can still barely believe it.
“It came as a surprise,” she says. “We think this is real progress. It’s something we think is really important, particularly the amount of money it will raise, and the capacity to use that for apprenticeships and get employers geared up to make good use of that.”
But while Rees believes that the £3 billion per year that the levy will eventually raise has the potential to transform the skills of the UK workforce, she has her concerns. “We’re very sympathetic to people receiving quality training; the more we can enable that to happen the better,” she says. “What we want to try and avoid, though, is a situation where the rules are bent to try and access the kind of resource that will be available. I worry about that.
“We saw a bit of that with Train to Gain – there were lots of organisations pitching up for government funds and what they were offering was highly questionable in many cases.
“This is suddenly a large pot of cash that is going to be available for quite a small group of people. That’s got to be thought through carefully. Quality has got to be at the root of everything to make sure the apprenticeship is appropriate for the industry [that an employee works in], and that it’s broad-ranging and a qualification people can take with them.”
Ensuring that apprentices get the pay they are entitled to is also a priority for Rees. The most recent pay survey by the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (Bis) revealed that one in seven apprentices was receiving less than the hourly minimum wage.
“It’s only £3.30 an hour [for first-year and 16-18 apprentices],” Rees says. “It’s tiny. So it’s important that we do something about this. Young people are facing a very difficult employment situation in the UK, and we’re very keen to play our part.”
Improving working conditions has been central to Rees’ career since 1979 when, as an employee in the advertising department of a local newspaper group in Essex, she first encountered the trade union movement.
After going on strike for the first time, she ended up taking up a job working for the former National Graphical Association union. After moving to the Civil Service Union (now part of the PCS public services union), she worked for the training college that used to be run by the TUC, before becoming the umbrella organisation’s head of trade union education. “That’s the job I really wanted,” she recalls.
But the lure of heading up Unionlearn, which helps more than 230,000 people access learning opportunities through their union every year, proved too strong for Rees to resist. “It’s felt like being at home but different at the same time,” she says.
Rees’ most pressing problem to date has been whether Unionlearn will continue to exist in its current form. To offer the bulk of its existing provision and support, the organisation is dependent on funding from Bis through the union learning fund, which in 2014-15 was worth £15.3 million. This is significantly less than the £21.5 million it received in 2010-11.
And while FE cuts in the Autumn Statement were less severe than had been feared, Rees has faced an anxious wait to hear whether another grant will be forthcoming in the light of the overall 17 per cent cut to Bis’ budget.
“The projects rely on that seed funding,” she says. “What we’ve tried to do is ensure that, should we have to fold, we would still have work going on in our affiliates. We will always be doing work in learning and skills, it’s just a question of the scale and reach. At the moment we can get to hundreds of thousands of learners. That’s where the Bis money makes a huge difference. I haven’t met [skills minister] Nick Boles yet formally, but he’s always been very supportive of Unionlearn.”
With a decision from Bis expected to be announced in the coming days, Rees shouldn’t have long to wait to find out whether Mr Boles’ support remains intact.
Unionlearn will celebrate its 10th anniversary in April, but its origins can be traced to the establishment of the union learning fund in 1998. Since then, around £150 million has been disbursed to encourage training in workplaces, through establishing workplace learning centres and recruiting union learning reps.
Unionlearn is the training and skills wing of the Trades Union Congress (TUC). It organises and supports a range of campaigns to improve learning opportunities for trade union members, from campaigning on behalf of apprentices to supporting workers aged 50 and over.
A major part of Unionlearn’s work is administering the union learning fund, worth £15.3 million in 2014-15. The fund has supported projects by more than 50 unions across more than 700 workplaces.