Mention the words "union" and "bargaining agenda" and most people think of pay. But unionlearn, the TUC's learning and skills organisation, is helping unions to challenge employers to invest in training staff and is pushing learning right up the list of union priorities.

Declan MacIntyre, who until four years ago had the reading and writing ability of a seven-year-old, is proof that its impact is wide-reaching. "When I was becoming a father for the first time, I worried that I wouldn't be able to help my child with homework," he says. "As an employee of Brighton Cityclean [the council's in-house recycling, refuse and street cleansing service], I was offered the chance to do a course that would change that, and then there was no stopping me.

"I went on to get my English GCSE and am now working as a project worker for Aslef [the train drivers' union]. I now have two children and we have a regular routine of reading to each other at bedtime, and I help with the older one's homework a lot.

"It's affected my confidence too: I used to be fearful of change, but now I see new things as an adventure."

MacIntyre attributes much of his success to the fact that unionlearn funds more than 400 learning centres that range in location from Birmingham New Street station to self-standing centres such as the one near the Olympic Park in east London, as well as further education colleges. In his case, the learning centre was in his workplace in Brighton. "I wouldn't have done the course anywhere else. I have absolutely no fond memories of schooling and wouldn't have gone near any educational institution. Also, having the centre on-site meant there were other work colleagues in the same boat."

Elaine Sweetman, one of thousands of the union learning reps (ULRs) whom unionlearn trains to provide advice and support to colleagues, reports that this learning centre has led to many employees turning their lives around. "We see it as a diversity issue," she says. "White working-class, straight males hardly feature as a group people think of when it comes to diversity needs, but we get many who have failed at school and carried the idea that they're thick into adulthood.

"By enabling them to get a qualification, we have changed the whole working culture and there are massive business benefits, including increased motivation and reduced sickness. Yes, we do have some people like Declan who, as a result of learning, move on; but others are so pleased and excited that they're finally being invested in that they're more committed to their employer than ever. Either way, we see it as a win-win."

The education and training unionlearn provides access to courses from basic literacy and numeracy to degree-level, as John Fitzpatrick explains. "I was a bus driver at Barking Garage and lost my licence on medical grounds. I was persuaded I'd be good in a teaching role. I wasn't at all convinced, but it's given me qualifications and confidence beyond my wildest dreams. My next plan is to do a BA."

Growing numbers of professionals and managers are accessing continuing professional development (CPD) via unionlearn, says Marie Morgan, bargaining unit learning officer at the Professional and Managers' Association (PMA). "So far, we've trained 20 ULRs in these higher grades so that they can support similar-graded colleagues, and we're about to train more. These ULRs are supporting marketing people to do CIM [Chartered Institute of Marketing] qualifications, and HR people to do CIPD [Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development] qualifications, among many other examples."

People often think unionlearn gently pushes people into training they could have got anyway. Far from it, insists Morgan. "Our ULRs help people like lawyers access much-needed courses that were previously being blocked by their employers, or for which they were not being given time off."

As part of their role in persuading staff to take up more training and employers to invest in this training, ULRs offer support with funding and guidance around time off. "In our case, we've negotiated a 10 per cent discount with Open University on CPD and another training organisation is offering 50 per cent off their courses," says Morgan. The Government last year awarded the Union Learning Fund an annual grant of £15.5m which funds unionlearn projects.

When it comes to time off for learning, ULRs stand ready to help ensure that requests under the new right to request time off for training are well made and that employers consider them properly. After all, employers who turn down requests are expected to show good reason. Given that the similar right to request flexible working led to millions of employees making requests, with more than 90 per cent being agreed by employers, ULRs are understandably optimistic.

The most ingenious part of the unionlearn concept is that it can reach parts of the workplace no one else can, believes Mary Bousted, chair of the unionlearn board. "ULRs are working with their colleagues on the shop floor or chatting to them at the water cooler," she says. "Often the result is the identification of the need for collective learning, and asking for training on a group level rather than individually feels much safer to many employees. Even if an individual need is identified, the benefit of a ULR is he or she is someone like you, and that can be very powerful."

When it comes to bargaining with employers, there are mixed reactions, admits Bousted. "We have an excellent relationship with some major employers, although SMEs [small and medium-sized enterprises] can be harder to crack. But ULRs are well trained to demonstrate the benefits of training to the employer and, if anyone can persuade them, they can. It's about employers getting a better-qualified, more focused workforce with better morale. It also helps that ULRs are excellent at flagging up training opportunities that perhaps employees or the employer (or both) didn't know was available."

In fact, unionlearn has enabled many unions to forge and maintain partnerships that help create constructive relations at work even during hard times. Bousted says: "I think this is because managers can see the advantages of working with learners. They can see it's the best way to develop skills, to create better employee engagement and to build a more creative, flexible and less hierarchical workforce for tomorrow." Not that the learning ULRs promote is just work-related. "Unionlearn is as much to do with personal training as anything else. My own union offers courses ranging from relaxation therapy to bread making and Spanish for beginners. It's a route into learning. It helps raise awareness of a learning environment and it can help with team building too."

At Fletchers bakery in Sheffield, Mick Neville and Alan Oakes persuaded 50 co-workers to get involved in a reading challenge. "On the back of it, people enrolled on literacy and numeracy courses at our work-based learning centre, which we set up in an old storage room, and many have since been promoted because of their increase in both confidence and skills," says Neville.

Sebastian Barnes, who works in live theatre, is doing a degree for his personal development. "I get 30 per cent of it paid for, thanks to unionlearn," he says.

Linda King, education and training officer at the National Union of Journalists, says unionlearn is as committed to freelancers as employers. "We have long known freelance journalists can face barriers to CPD and, thanks to unionlearn, we've been able to train people up in much-needed skills. People can now pay about £25 for courses that commercially would cost a minimum of £700."

Martin Roberts, chief electrician at the Princess Theatre in Torquay, points to the value of multi-skilling people. "Some of the courses that I've got people involved in as a ULR in the theatre industry have enabled them to become skilled in lighting as well as sound, for example, and employers love that."

Roberts has been involved with one of unionlearn's special areas of focus – greening skills. He says unionlearn is training green reps such as him to equip people at work to have an understanding of the green agenda. "For example, I've been training electricians and maintenance people to do a green audit."

Another focus for unionlearn is equality, and there has been much emphasis on low-paid staff and black and minority ethnic (BME) workers, among others. "Dealing with migrant workers is critical because many of them are desperate to learn English, but many work in sectors and working cultures where they work long hours and don't have opportunities to organise any training for themselves," says Joanna Lucyszyn, a ULR for the GMB union in Swindon.

"Even if employers don't start off keen, they all wind up feeling they benefit from better communication at work, which can have an indirect benefit on things like health and safety. As for the migrants, it can be life changing. I went through the process myself when I came over from Poland. It enabled me to do things others take for granted – writing a cheque, understanding the weather forecast, dealing with a landlord and furthering myself at work."

'I've been able to earn as I learn'

Rachael Hoyle, 23, has completed an advanced apprenticeship

"To my teachers' and family's disappointment, I left school at 16. I'd got eight GCSEs, mainly As and A*s, and they expected me to take A-levels and go on to university. But thanks to an advanced apprenticeship, I've been able to earn while I learn and am already part of the team working on the Eurofighter Typhoon jet.

My decision to do an apprenticeship came about when I did work experience at BAE. I liked the idea of being trained by the experts in the business and I'd seen how an apprenticeship had served my dad well in his career. I was accepted on to the apprenticeship in aerospace engineering in 2003 and it took me three and a half years. I joined Amicus at the same time and its reps have been incredibly supportive – working with BAE to ensure quality and pay and conditions for apprentices.

What I loved about it most was that whatever I learned at college, I could relate back to work immediately. It was also great having a mentor within the company and doing placements all around the company. If at any time I wanted to go somewhere else, I just had to say so.

Once I finished, I spoke to my union rep about continuing learning. I'm now doing a degree. Once I've finished that, I'd like to become a chartered engineer."

'It's been fantastic for me'

Peter Amphlett, 54, is studying for a foundation degree

"My job, as project worker for the Royal College of Midwives, is to recruit and train union learning reps and help them identify learning needs within the unit they're based at, and find ways to address those learning needs. To help me achieve this, I decided to do a foundation degree. There was all this emphasis on ULRs encouraging other employees to study and we realised we ought to practise what we preach a bit more.

The great thing about foundation degrees is that there has to be some relevance to the work you're doing. That's why I chose business studies. I felt that, although I had become pretty good at encouraging people to take up learning, I didn't have a great degree of knowledge about the business decisions behind that – that is, what factors would influence an employer to support someone or not. I just thought certain courses were a great idea for certain employees, but for employers it's a bit more complicated.

The course has helped me understand that to persuade an employer to work in partnership with me there has to be some business benefit – and how to fit my work into the goals of the organisation. For me, it's been fantastic. I haven't done a qualification since before my A-levels 35 years ago."