Why should trade unions support adults to learn maths? Let me count the ways

My research into what motivates people to learn mathematics at work came up with some very interesting findings.

Beth Kelly Blog

It shows that learning maths through trade unions benefits members, ULRs and the trade union organisations. In this blog I use quotes from members to show just some of the benefits.

  • The members who take on learning maths

A majority of members I spoke to who learnt maths said their confidence with numbers had increased, which affected how they felt about themselves and how they acted in their lives. As one man said:

I am already a confident person but, for instance, when I learnt to do percentages, well you sort of sit up a bit straighter.

A 53-year-old woman spoke about how she now uses the mathematics skills she learnt when negotiating with management on Health and Safety issues:

I want to know if the figures management give to me are accurate. I want to use them for evidence for an issue, such as illnesses, noise levels. You are making the figures work for you.

Others spoke about feeling more confident in their skills and more secure about work.

  • The ULRs - key to motivating learners

The research shows that ULRs play a key role in encouraging members to reengage with learning and, with other members of the learning group, are really important in keeping that learning going. But members appreciate what ULR’s do and support them, as one explained:

If I am honest, part of [my motivation to learn maths] is because [the new ULR] was organizing it.  He put a lot of effort in, he was getting a lot of stick from people on the shop floor, saying ‘You’re wasting your time’ and I said, ‘If you get maths going I’ll put my name down and I will do it.

Also being a ULR can change your life. One female ULR (46) described mathematics initially as her “black hole” but how taking on the challenge of learning maths had made her develop “a passion” for it.

  • The Trade union organisation benefit through a revitalisation of membership

Members talked about seeing and feeling differently about the trade union.

As one woman (53) explained how learning mathematics…

has given me a different view. I thought [TUs] were like dinosaurs … ‘all out brothers’. The union has got a point; they are not just here for strikes, they are here to look after people.

A 35-year-old man said that being offered the opportunity to learn made him feel more positive about the trade union because they gave him the chance, whereas…

Most companies won’t do that. They will teach you skills for work but not maths and English.

If you would like to read more about the research you can find it at:

Kelly, B. (2018). Motivating adults to learn mathematics in the workplace: A trade union approach. International Journal of Lifelong Education,1-16.


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Beth Kelly

Dr Beth Kelly is researching into why people learn maths while they work at UCL’s Institute of Education and is the CEO of a social enterprise called Learning Unlimited.

Beth recently published “Motivating adults to learn mathematics in the workplace: A trade union approach” and talks about the results of her research in this blog.