With the UK again ranking low for skills, Liz Rees describes how unions can help upskill employees in English and maths.

Earlier this week I experienced a “low skills” Groundhog Day. Yet another policy report appeared highlighting the UK’s abysmal record in ensuring that its citizens are empowered to acquire the minimum skills necessary to fulfil their potential at work and in society.

In basic terms, this involves all citizens achieving an aptitude in core skills – English, maths and ICT – that is expected of school-leavers in OECD countries.

This new research was published by the Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) in a major report setting out an anti-poverty strategy designed to solve poverty in a generation.

Low skill levels lock people out of the labour market

The research repeated many of the depressing statistics showing that the UK, despite being the fifth-largest economy in the world, languishes near the bottom of many OECD skills league tables.

The latest estimates are that five million adults in the UK lack core literacy or numeracy skills, and that over 12 million lack basic digital skills.

What was very welcome about the JRF report is that it puts low levels of skills in the context of the wider policy challenge of tackling poverty.

Improving education standards and raising skills is one of the pillars of the JRF’s five-point plan.

This is not rocket science – low skill levels tend to either lock people out of the labour market completely, or it locks them into a cycle of highly-casualised, low-paid employment interspersed with regular periods of unemployment.

A key recommendation by the JRF is to double government funding for supporting adults to attain key skills, with the aim of enabling five million more people to reach minimum levels in English, maths and ICT within a generation.

There are some other welcome policy recommendations in the report, including measures to drive up the number of high-quality apprenticeships.

It is also welcome that the JRF report (and associated research by the Learning and Work Institute) highlighted that encouraging adults to take up learning is another key barrier – and that trade unions play a vital role on this front.

The development of union learning representatives and the establishment of the Union Learning Fund in the late 1990s were hugely influenced by the Moser Report and its evidence that millions of adults lacked these key skills.

Union learning reps very quickly proved to be highly adept at supporting colleagues to take up union-led learning opportunities in the workplace.

In many cases these individuals had spent their working lives concealing the fact that they had left school without the necessary attainment in English and maths because they were embarrassed and often feared for their employment prospects if it became public knowledge.

Each year trade unions, with the support of unionlearn and the Union Learning Fund, help well over 200,000 employees to engage in learning. Many of these are adults taking the first steps to brush up on their English and maths.

Lots of these individuals then get the learning bug and gain valuable skills and qualifications that boost their career prospects.

For example, a forthcoming independent evaluation of unionlearn and the Union Learning Fund found that employees undertaking at least three episodes of union-led learning are three times more likely to receive a pay rise and six times more likely to be promoted.

Unionlearn continues to prioritise building support services for workers who, with the encouragement of their union, engage with learning at work to improve their English and maths.

Next month we will be launching a campaign on maths skills – dubbed ‘the unionlearn maths workout’ – with the aim of engaging more adults to take up union-led learning opportunities.

Liz Rees is Director of unionlearn