English and maths learning case studies

This page contains case studies related to English and maths learning.

Trade unions tackling English and maths

Trade unions continue to play a key role in engaging adults in English and maths learning. Through collective bargaining, unions persuade employers to acknowledge the importance of good basic skills in the workplace. They secure employers' support, in the form of paid time for learning and assessment, provision of union-led learning centre facilities, or financial support for ESOL courses.

Some unions negotiate agreements with learning providers to deliver face to face courses on or off site. Others have established their own in-house expertise in learning delivery and in the innovative use of resources for additional learning support. Unions and union learning reps (ULRs) devise inventive campaigns, engaging workers and communities to give English and maths learning a go.

Given the diverse workplaces that unions organise in, there will always be different factors to be considered and strategies to be adopted. Clearly, engaging and supporting learners to improve their English and maths is not a matter of single, best approach. However, we felt that the following examples of unions working with English and maths learners might be instructive and inspirational for others.

POA Learning | Usdaw | Finance Sector | URTU | CWU | UNISON

POA Learning

POA Learning has developed a network of workplace centres. They attract learners from the workplace, community and by referral from other unions, so have to satisfy a wide range of learning needs. Some learners work towards level 2 accreditation for career progression or job applications some simply to enhance their skills. The centre staff are trained to provide functional skills support.

Centre workers Nicky Volley and Gareth Williams told us that ULRs remain central to learner engagement, but have limited time to provide learning support, so referral through to the centres becomes very important. The centres have a vast range of resources available to help anyone wanting to gain a qualification in functional skills maths and English, these are geared towards real life situations both in and out of the workplace.

Maths, according to Nicky, can carry its own psychological baggage. Nicky works to overcome this by creating a supportive environment, using concepts of comfort zones, stretch zones and panic zones. These help learners understand that they will need to think and work hard, but "our delivery methods never ever take you into your panic zone," she says. "Our aim is to help you enjoy, develop and make learning easier for you."

Nicky strives to relate maths to learners' own work and life issues, for example pensions, wages and physical wellbeing. The emphasis is that learning maths will not be done in the way it was at school.

Back to top


The workplaces organised by Usdaw tend to be either very large or very small. In the larger workplaces, the union has generally achieved good learning agreements with good facility time for ULRs and learning centre facilities, whereas smaller workplaces tend to be less well-resourced. These different workplaces demand different approaches, though ULRs are crucial to learner engagement across the board.

In large workplaces Usdaw has found employer support is a key driver in engagement and ULRs have been able to intervene to rearrange shifts and negotiate matched time for learning to facilitate participation. There is a general perception in the sector that qualifications encourage progression, especially level 1 to 2, so achieving a time contribution from employers creates a driver for participation in accredited programmes. Learning delivery for these is primarily by external tutors, usually in onsite learning centres, but sometimes with additional online support. Usdaw negotiates provider agreements up front for these programmes.

The union ran a campaign to get ULRs to take the role of maths champions and found the training for gave them the confidence to work with members, providers and employers. This campaign continues in the form of the National Numeracy Challenge Champions initiative.

Usdaw has had some success around family learning initiatives, producing bespoke materials that tackle maths and English in the context of everyday issues like managing household budgets. The union has also produced materials for redundancy support that embed English and maths learning.

The next phase for Usdaw is to explore the use of apps for informal mobile learning.

Back to top

Finance Sector

Significant barriers remain around English and maths learning in the finance sector. Employers are reluctant to accept that there are any English problems, although they clearly exist, and employees are loath to raise needs within competency-based appraisal systems, for fear of negative impact on pay progression, career development and job security.

Vicky Botham of Britannia Staff Union says:

"So the trick is in the presentation. We've successfully promoted English and maths learning embedded in issues of everyday interest, like health and nutrition."

Maths is perhaps slightly less stigmatised, though the sophistication of employers' systems often means there is less incentive for learners to address their learning needs. Andy Taylor of Aegis reports that some progress has been made on getting referrals to ULRs from issues arising in personal development reviews, and the union has also engaged with the employer around apprenticeship schemes. Andy also reported successfully using the unionlearn Quick Maths cards to raise interest in maths learning.

Back to top

United Road Transport Union (URTU)

URTU operates in the logistics sector, its membership comprising HGV drivers and warehousing staff. Nearly half (46% or 668,800 workers in the sector) do not have a Level 2 qualification, a much higher proportion than the all-sectors figure of 29%.

In some warehousing sites, where the union and employer work in close partnership, members are accessing English and maths provision through the apprenticeship framework delivered in the workplace. But members face many barriers to accessing leaning of any kind, and also additional barriers to English and maths provision. Members work shifts and drivers, in particular, operate in isolation, on the move. The vast majority of the membership cannot commit to provider-led Functional Skills programmes as their shift patterns preclude this.

Therefore, the project has stimulated interest in English and maths through innovative initiatives such as the URTU Short Story competition, which ran for the first time in 2015. The project has also promoted Quick Reads and the Six Book Challenge, both in workplaces and local communities. URTU has found that there is an appetite for distance and blended learning, and the latter has been supported through our work on digital inclusion. The project has piloted a Health and Safety course underpinned by English and maths through a partnership with the National Consortium of College (NCC).

URTU has had good success with functional skills embedded in learning around well-being, a big issue for drivers, and as part of the learning for the Certificate of Professional Competence, for which learners have 8 hours per year over 5 years. Maths champions have also taken off in a big way, largely due to the efforts of URTU's network of ULRs.

Back to top


The CWU delivers English and maths in a number of different settings and circumstances.

Thanks to the ULR rights enshrined within the Employment Act, CWU ULRs have generally been able to negotiate significant facility time. This has enabled the union to organise English and maths support that suits the circumstances of the membership.

Some CWU English and maths provision is formal and some informal or non-formal. The union still offers formal courses through SFA funded providers, some of which are embedded in apprenticeship programmes or delivered as part of its Skills For Tomorrow redeployment, re-skilling and redundancy support sessions. CWU also offers ESOL courses where required.

The attitude towards accreditation is mixed. For ESOL learners, accreditation is particularly important as it forms part of the citizenship process, but learning English also forms an important part of helping migrant workers to integrate into the workforce and wider society and can be a significant source of empowerment and self-esteem.

The issues are similar for native English speakers although the issues around perceived stigma can be a little different, as can be the negative associations with previous learning experiences.

CWU finds it important to offer a range of both formal and informal English and maths opportunities. Obviously gaining a certificate can benefit an individual in all sorts of ways, boosting their confidence and improving their employability – but if individuals don't want to take a formal course, it is not CWU's place to tell them it knows better. CWU offers a range of informal learning opportunities through links to good quality third party sites such as The British Council, Maths Everywhere and The Khan Academy Some of these can be delivered as ULR supported learning in workplace learning centres. CWU also offers really light touch interventions such as Quick Reads and sometimes creative writing events.

The idea is that the union offers a range of resources that work for people where they are now while offering the support, encouragement and incentive to move on when they are ready.

Back to top


ULRs remain vital to engaging English and maths learners, especially in signposting and creating learning pathways for members, but a big issue for UNISON is around how ULRs can be supported into activity once trained. To address this, UNISON has developed e-notes for pre and post-training, and ULRnet, an online resource for ULRs featuring a range of tools for learner engagement. Accreditation is not seen as a primary driver for engagement among UNISON members. More often, learners want to reach a level to enable them to pass another form of assessment from the employer, or simply to raise their skills levels. Additionally, the realities of the time commitment required for accredited learning can rule some learners out of formal programmes.

With this in mind, UNISON has explored many informal learning initiatives, including the Six Book Challenge, which received a very positive response in workplaces and proved to be a useful way to ease workers back into learning, and helped develop informal book groups and book swaps with a leave-a-comment protocol. The union has also successfully used taster sessions, Open University free online courses, and leisure learning with embedded English and maths to engage learners. In partnership with the Reading Agency, UNISON has produced Read anytime anywhere – a literacy toolkit for ULRs, which contains accessible and practical advice on how to engage and support English learning in the workplace.

Another toolkit for ULRs is UNISON's Making every penny count, which develops maths skills through the context of everyday finances.

UNISON ULRs can download accompanying worksheets to run activities with learners from ULRnet.

UNISON has also developed more formal routes for English and maths learners. Working with the Workers' Educational Association (WEA) on the Bridges to Learning project, the union has developed a fifteen week, three hours per week functional skills course for learners from seven healthcare workplaces in the north east. This course has generated its own momentum, via word of mouth recommendations from learners who have worked through the programme. Central to the course's success is WEA's focus on interactive, practical learning that takes the fear-factor out of English and maths. Others include employer support for time to learn, and the course's in-built flexibility – provided learners can attend 80% of the classroom sessions, they can gain accreditation, but learners can also study on an unaccredited basis.

UNISON has also worked to ensure that English and maths learning is embedded in its wider membership development programme, which includes courses like the longstanding Return to Learn programme that has proved invaluable for engaging learners who have concerns about returning to the classroom. The union also offers courses in managing finances and understanding pensions, which place maths in the context of everyday issues.

Back to top