Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research

Women and Work: Progression Through Learning project

This 32-month Higher Education European Social Fund (HEESF) research project set out to examine whether particular types of workplace learning
opportunities (brokered by the Trade Union, UNISON) aimed at low-paid women workers, result in changes in:

  • self-esteem
  • employability
  • take-up of training opportunities
  • and any cross-cutting affects of age and ethnicity

The research was conducted between February 2004 and August 2006 by Suzanne Hyde, a Research Fellow, and a team of interviewers coordinated by Suzanne. The research was managed by Mike Boice, the Principal Investigator and the research was guided by a Steering Group with representation from academic colleagues working within life history, Mass Observation and from UNISON.

Initiated by UNISON Open College and brought to fruition by the Centre for Continuing Education at the University of Sussex, the research captured the experience of learners in their own words. 70 life history interviews were conducted and this was supplemented by further 34 pieces of student writing about their lives and learning journeys.

The types of learning opportunities varied but were all facilitated through partnerships between employers, employees and local/national educational providers in order to offer ‘formal’ learning opportunities for employees and UNISON members.

The research journey began with the collection of life stories from a variety of learners learning through UNISON brokered courses. This included people working in all types and modes of employment, studying a variety of types andmodes of learning. What all respondents had in common was the study of something called a ‘course’ that was initiated through the workplace (as a result of a UNISON brokering role) with defined learning outcomes and formal assessment criteria. Two thirds of the courses undertaken by research participants were what could be classed as non-vocational e.g. the learning was ‘led’ by social science knowledge rather than an agenda to provide work related skills. Courses included, ‘Return to Learn’, Women, Health and Society and Dying and Bereavement. The majority of courses were undertaken during working hours.

We aimed to provide a body of stories from learners’ voices that could be used to influence and inform policy makers and education providers concerning the provision of learning opportunities. We undertook a thematic analysis of the stories in order to identify key patterns or absences within the learning journey. Learner stories illuminated that take-up of these formal learning opportunities had led to a rich variety of benefits and outcomes including: health and well-being, increased take-up of trade union activity, progression to higher levels of formal learning and concrete positive work related outcomes related to employability.

The majority of learners in our sample indicated that motivations for engaging with type of learning were very similar to ‘conventional’ adult learners learning in adult and continuing education settings e.g. a desire to meet new people, have a bit of ‘me’ time, try again at formal learning after earlier negative or interrupted experiences of formal learning. Learner life histories demonstrated that the current UK government workplace learning agenda, with its emphasis on ‘skills’, is in danger of missing the point if it wants to engage groups such as low-paid older women workers and provide attractive opportunities that may lead to work-related benefits for individuals (especially low-paid older women), families, communities and employers (Leitch: 2006).