Wendy Burton: Trade Union Education (Looking forward)

100 years after the 1919 Report on Adult education, speakers were brought together around the proud history of adult education in Scotland to make collective plans for a radical future.

Speakers included: Sharon Clancy, Raymond Williams Foundation Working class and union education: Wendy Burton (STUC), Dek Keenan (independent scholar and author) Recovery movement and adult learning: Joyce Nicholson (Glasgow University), John Player (independent scholar and author) Empowering literacies: Jim Crowther, co-author ‘Powerful Literacies’, Sarah McEwen, University of Dundee

Wendy Burton is Director of Scotland-wide work-based learning and skills organisation who works in partnership with trade unions, funders, employers, learning providers and national agencies to deliver inclusive work-based learning, equality and leadership projects in a range of sectors. Responsibilities include strategic development, programme management, stakeholder engagement, financial management, training and development, and communications. Recent initiatives include Digital Skills and Cyber Resilience projects, and supporting young and precarious workers.

She is also a Director of the Board of Learning Link Scotland – the national organisation established to promote, represent, and develop adult learning in the Third Sector, and Board Director of Project Ability – the visual arts organisation that creates opportunities for people with disabilities and experience of mental ill-health to achieve their artistic potential.


Below is a transcript of the presentation given by Wendy Burton, Scottish TUC celebrating 100 years of radical Adult Education in Scotland.



Wendy: Thank you, and if it’s alright I’ll remain seated. I am just getting over the flu so I’m hoping that my voice will hold out, but if you need me to shout louder please let me know. I’m really pleased to have been invited to speak here today, especially as it’s in the STUC, and as Sarah mentioned we will be moving out. We’re moving out at the end of January and it’s very sad, especially for people like me who’ve worked here for quite a long time. What I wanted to do is tell you a bit about Scottish union learning: some of the union learning we’ve been involved in and the work we’d like to see going forward, some of the issues that we face in doing this work and what we would like to see in the future. I do know some of you here today, but could I just get a show of hands if you do know anything about Scottish union learning? Good, quite a few. I’ll try not to bore you too much then.

We were established in 2008, but we evolved from earlier STUC learning initiatives, and since 2001 the STUC has obtained funding from Scottish Government to help unions build capacity and learning opportunities for members in workplaces throughout Scotland. Funding also enables the training of union reps, including learning reps, equality reps, health and safety, through TUC Education Scotland, which is a separate organisation to the STUC but I’ll not get into all the politics of that. But we do fund direct training that takes place in Scotland through TUC.

We’ve got two different strands: we’ve got the union rep education and then we’ve got the union learning for workers. My remit focuses mostly on union learning and we take a collective approach in facilitating this. The learning ranges from literacy and numeracy skills through to employability, vocational and trade skills, and opportunities for pathways into further and higher education. We used to be able to provide more leisure-type courses but over the last four or five years we’ve moved to a more vocational model. That’s partly because of funding restrictions, but also it’s because of the demand that we were getting from workers. Workers want skills that will help them progress in the workplace. And I should say that all of the learning that we organise is open to all workers in an organisation, not just the union members, although unions do use that as a tool to recruit.

I should also mention Fair Work at this stage. We’re funded through the Fair Work Directorate in the Scottish Government, and although the concept of Fair Work is something that has been a key focus for trade unions for a long time the principles are now enshrined in a framework and promoted by the Scottish Government, and union learning plays a pivotal role in the creation of the Fair Workplace. These principles are: effective voice, opportunity, security, fulfilment and respect.

So over the years we’ve built strong union learning rep structures. We now facilitate around 9000 work-based learning opportunities a year; about five years ago it was around 4000 so more than doubled in the last few years, despite not getting any additional funding. That 9000 is through a combination of our own funded learning and courses that are also funded by the unions themselves, by employers and by other partner organisations that we work with. All of this [encourages 0:04:21] workers to engage more confidently, not just in work but at home with their families and in their social, community and civic lives.

I also want to say union learning isn’t just about putting on courses – there’s a lot of development activity being undertaken across different workplaces and sectors. I would like to give you some examples but the main thing that we’re seeing is that unions are actually driving the learning and skills agenda with employers so that they become aware of the positive contribution that learning makes to individuals and to the workplace. There are many workplaces and centres where the skills of workers aren’t recognised and the responsibility for training is falling unfairly on individual workers. One really big example, current example, is that of the social care sector. Earlier this year the Fair Work Convention produced a report on the conditions within the sector. It’s a massive sector and still growing: around 200,000 workers throughout Scotland, and the average wage is less than £10 an hour. 19% of workers are on zero hours contracts and [there’s a training regime 0:05:34] where despite the profession becoming really prominent – it’s a highly professionalised service – the responsibility for skills is falling on individual care workers. When we looked into it a bit more we realised the issue wasn’t that there’s a lack of skills, the issue is the failure of the sector to realise and recognise the high level skills that the workers have: technical skills in dispensing medicine, advanced emotional and personal skills in dealing with vulnerable people with complex and social care needs. Workers within this sector do have an abundance of skills that we all call on in different points of our life, but these workers who care for those greatest in need they’re not rewarded with a decent wage and terms and conditions. UNISON is however playing an important and crucial role in supporting these workers to build and develop their skills base and help them gain accreditation for the skills that they have.

Another example I’d like to highlight is the work of UNITE the Union in the construction industry, dealing with small sub-contractors to try and overcome logistical challenges of providing training that people need to remain working in the sector. I don’t know if you’re aware of the CSCS card, it’s a skills card workers need to get on site and it involves periodic assessments and training. And for skilled workers who are at the end of the supply chain of sub-contracting arrangements this presents almost impossible barriers. It has been a real challenge working with sub-contractors because they’re often suspicious of unions or hostile towards them, but UNITE has now worked with over 15 private companies and supported 400 workers in obtaining these skills cards. We think that is a real achievement, although again it should be the employer who is taking responsibility for that. UNITE has also been very proactive in organising opportunities as part of its redundancy support programme, and I’m sure you will all be aware of events recently at Caley and Glasgow, Dunlop in Dundee and Thomas Cook, all around Scotland.

We’re also heavily involved in the finance sector through Aegis the Union, based mostly in Aegon which is a large financial services organisation in Edinburgh. It has been very segregated among customer care, call centre and back office staff, who are all quite highly qualified with good financial qualifications. But there was a really high turnover of staff in an area in Edinburgh with quite high employment. So we worked with the union and the employer to review the customer service role, and recognising how vital that is as the interface between customer and organisation. With changes in financial regulation – we didn’t realise at the time but we know better now – but it doesn’t matter what company you’re dealing with, the products are all more or less the same. The main difference is in customer care and how you get treated when you phone them up to ask them about something. So, we wanted to focus on that customer care element and Aegon tended to recruit university graduates, very highly qualified, but it wasn’t working. The first thing we did was work with the employer to encourage them to take on Modern Apprenticeships for the customer care roles and this was a much better fit in terms of recruitment. In the last few years there have been 239 Modern Apprentices starting in Aegon, 19 in the current year, and now the trade union is the first point of contact for the apprenticeship programme within that workplace. We also worked with SCQF to introduce a Level 8 award to transform the training for frontline staff and providing an HNC qualification. In the last few years we’ve had 473 staff obtain this qualification, and 68 in the last year. We feel this is real progress in unions driving forward learning and skills within a workplace. Again, this wasn’t just about the skills, it was about the status and the importance of the roles that people were employed in that wasn’t being recognised.

I’ve lots of other examples – and teaching unions, we’ve done a lot of work with them. We’ve done a lot of work with RMT, with CalMac, particularly on apprenticeships as well. I could go on and on but if anyone is interested please come and talk to me about it. What I will say is that in terms of apprentices we’ve also provided a lot of support around literacy and numeracy and mentoring to help young people cope in the workplace and to improve their skills. And everyday skills is an important area of our work, and by that I mean the literacy, numeracy, basic IT, ESOL, and support for learners who may have dyslexia or other learning differences and disabilities. That is a core area of work for us. But increasingly that has been known to include digital skills and then cyber resilience skills and we’ve had bits of funding to help us support people in the workplace who needed to learn these skills and also to be safe when they’re online. Digital skills is one of the fastest growing areas of our work, but the other is mental health awareness and mental health first aid, and I think that’s a reflection of today’s workplace.

One other area that I’d like to highlight is our leadership and equality programme. It was well recognised that the majority of union leaders were white, male and of a certain age. So we developed a programme to offer opportunities to potential leaders of the future who are young, women, from black and minority ethnic groups, with disabilities, from the LGBT+ community, everyone that we could engage with we have tried. Up until last year we had around 600 people go through this programme. It’s running again this year and the demand is there for this to continue so hopefully we’ll see changes in union leadership soon as well.

This is all really important work for us and it’s work that we do want to take forward, but there are real challenges; funding – we operate a two-year programme, it’s approved annually by Scottish Government. That hinders long term planning and creates insecurity for staff, and the unions that we work with. Also, our core funding has remained at the same level for ten years so it’s pretty much unsustainable in terms of the support that we can provide to unions and to learners. In addition to what I’ve said about employers not recognising skills, there is a lack of training offered by employers themselves; they always favour training for higher grade workers, and those on lower grades don’t get the opportunities. Employers are also quite unwilling to release staff to undertake learning during working time. Precarious workers are really difficult to organise learning for because of unreliable zero hours contracts, last minute shift changes and a lack of union representation. It’s similar with freelance and self-employed workers, and around 10% of our learners don’t actually have an employer. Older workers are also being disadvantaged in the job market with recent investment focusing on youth unemployment, but we are working with unions and employers to try and become more age inclusive and provide better job security for those already in work and having to work much longer.

There’s a lack of learning providers as well. A lot of our courses we find it difficult to find suitable providers due to the nature of the learning, the method of delivery, fitting around shift patterns and caring responsibilities, or the geographical area – and in the Highlands and Islands that is our biggest challenge, it’s the geography that really causes issues for us. But also there’s a lack of affordable part time further and higher education provision. Workers can’t give up their jobs, and that was mentioned earlier today, to study full time and many don’t want to study online for reasons that have already been highlighted. I mean, I myself was lucky to benefit from evening classes and that’s how I started my first degree, but this hasn’t been a viable option for people over recent decades. We also have the changing labour market, rapid speed of technology, automation, there’s a lot of fear among workers, how do we support them through that. And then there are real challenges in supporting workers with learning differences and disabilities because they’re trapped in low skilled, low paid jobs without support from their employer. We estimate that around 5-6% of our learners declare a disability but others prefer not to say so it’s really difficult to quantify, but we think it’s because they don’t want their employers to know.

Is there hope for the future? Maybe. We’re working, or we’re going to be working, closely with Scottish Government, Education Scotland, the WEA, Learning Link Scotland, Newbattle Abbey College, and other national partners to help develop the new Adult Learning Strategy for Scotland which is due to launch [next 0:15:34] year, and some of you here are involved in that process. Our involvement is really critical to ensure that adult learning will reduce inequality by developing better skilled, educated, confident and empowered workers. But it’s essential that there is adequate funding and resources to support the new strategy or we won’t succeed.

What do I want for the future? I’ve got a great big wish list. I want more Scottish Government funding and longer term funding, I want to see greater employer investment in learning and skills and not just for the higher grades. I want upskilling and retraining for older workers to become a priority, and I want to see unions engaging more with employers around learning and skills. They seem to be doing quite a good job, we just need them to do more of it. But also unions need to engage with younger workers or unions won’t survive, and I think that the current climate crisis is the perfect opportunity for unions to engage with young people and that that is what we need to do.

More generally I want every adult to be able to read and write. If I can use my favourite Che Guevara quote: ‘A country that does not know how to read and write is easy to deceive’, and we’re always in fear of that happening. I want learning opportunities that benefit all adults, whether they’re in work or not. I want a progressive model for affordable part time further and higher education and improved widening access programme for adults, and I want a highly developed adult learning workforce with structured career paths. And I also want all professionals, whether they work in education, health, social care, early learning, the police, job centres, other public service workers, I want them all to be equipped with information so that they can signpost potential learners to the most suitable provision. And if I can end here, I just want to come back to the concept of union learning and Fair Work. We can’t have effective voice without making sure everyone is heard. We can’t have respect and security for some and not for others. We can’t gain greater fulfilment and opportunity unless everyone has the tools to upskill, reskill and progress within the workplace.

The questions I have, well the first one was: is union learning radical today, because I think a lot of what we’re doing we’ve just become accustomed to it and I don’t know if it is quite so radial anymore. Maybe we need to be more radical. My second question was: how do we build hope for the future for workplace learners who are experiencing precarious employment, zero hours contracts, lack of opportunity, and they’re expected to continue working later in life? And then I had a third one, about how we can encourage greater investment in learning and skills for adults. Thank you.


These resources have been archived at the Ragged University.working with Sarah Galloway who works from the University of Stirling the coordinator and curator of the archive. You can find videos, audio recordings and transcripts of the other presentations via the page below: