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Veteran of the workers' struggle turns to learning

John Monks' time at the TUC made him value workplace training. Steve Hook reports on his new mission.

ASKED if there are too few academics at the top of the Learning and Skills Council, John Monks, the new chair of its adult learning committee, shrugs his shoulders.

The appointment of the Trades Union Congress general secretary provides a counter-balance to the dominance of business interests and has ensured workplace training will be looked at in terms of workers' rights and not just as a means of increasing productivity.

Monks has a mission to make sure that training is taken as seriously on the shop floor as elsewhere.

"There are always going to be groups of people who feel they are not represented but I think the Learning and Skills Council is better from that point of view than the Training and Enterprise Councils," he says. "I represent the TUC on all sorts of bodies. But this is different. We've got a job to do. The problem is that so much of the training which is available tends to be for the already-educated. But there are a lot of people out there who didn't go to university, who perhaps didn't get a good set of A-levels and who leave education thinking 'learning is not for us'.

"There are a few exceptions to that rule, a few Educating Rita stories which have come true. John Prescott is a good example of someone who left school that way but ended up studying at Ruskin. I'm not comparing John Prescott with Julie Walters, of course, but what I am saying is we need that sort of personal success story to become the norm."

"Some places might et criticised by the Oxbridge brigade for running courses which are more vocational but for many people education is not just about being good at exams," he says.

"The university route just doesn't suit all people. Many don't feel comfortable learning in an environment where the average age is 21. They want to learn through work."

Staff training is often the first to go when businesses face lean times, but it would be wrong, he says, to assume that a strong economy means more training.

"In Britain, as the economy picks up, you have companies working at full capacity in an environment where there are skills shortages, meaning existing staff have to work longer.

"The number of training days per worker has actually gone down."

Businesses will see their involvement with the LSC as an opportunity to improve the value of their most vital asset, the workforce.

But what's in it for the unions? Most employees are not in a union, let alone one recognised by their employer.

Monks believes some companies will be persuaded that training and union recognition go together.

"When training is offered by employers there is sometimes a feeling among workers that they are being asked to do something which involves passing or failing," he says. "They think 'what happens if I fail?'

"But, where a union is involved, they are likely to be reassured that its not about passing or failing, it's about learning at your own pace.

"They are more likely to understand that if the union is involved, because people feel that unions are on their side."

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