Want to learn maths or English at work? The TUC has the course for you, says Amy McLellan

It sometimes seems that the professional classes like nothing better than to upbraid lower- skilled, lower-paid workers. Only last week, the Professional Association of Teachers claimed that the slovenly ways of trainee nursery nurses threatened to create a generation of Vicky Pollards, while the Confederation of British Industry claimed that half of all school leavers are unemployable. Yet top-down initiatives to bridge the skills gap - and there is a plethora of schemes and quangos dedicated to this subject - often leave workers feeling excluded or resentful of the changes being imposed from on high.

This might explain why so many big ideas designed to improve the UK's skills base have yet to make any impression on the five million adults in the UK who, according to the interim findings of a HM Treasury review, have no qualifications at all, or the one-in-six who don't even have the literacy skills expected of an 11-year-old. What's more, those workers who are most in need of additional training are the least likely to receive it: managers, for example, tend to get three times as many training days as the rest of us.

Unionlearn, a new skills and education programme run by the TUC, which represents 67 unions in the UK, aims to succeed where other initiatives have failed.

"From the outside, the world of learning and skills is complex and jargon-ridden," says Liz Smith, director of unionlearn, which was formally launched in May but is really building on four years worth of solid union-led work-place training programmes. "We [the unions] are the voice of employees in this whole debate and can reach nearly seven million people that work."

The key to this reach are the union learning representatives, who have rights to paid time off to carry out their training duties. There are 14,000 trained reps in the UK, helping 100,000 people access courses. By 2010, unionlearn hopes to have 22,000 reps helping 250,000 workers into learning every year. As one union spokeswoman puts it, "this is a quiet revolution in getting people back into work".

It appears to work - although Liz Smith is keen to stress that there is still a long way to go - because the reps can approach their peers with ideas for training and education initiatives in a way that bosses, even with the best intentions in the world, cannot.

"It's about creating a climate where people do not feel they are being picked on because of their weaknesses," says Smith. "A lot of people with unrealised talent won't put their head above the parapet because they're scared about being selected for redundancy."

The training is either delivered in partnership with local colleges or, where they exist, work-place learning centres. A wide range of courses are on offer, from maths and English to foreign languages, archeology and digital photography. Workers can progress from basic literacy and numeracy all the way up to GCSE level and beyond.

This is not just about equipping workers with vocational skills. There's a much more ambitious agenda behind the initiative, one designed to raise levels of confidence and aspiration. "There is massive untapped talent among low-paid, low- skilled workers," says Smith. "Unionlearn is about a vision of society where work does not lock people into their starting point but gives them lots of opportunities that both they and their employer can benefit from."

Mark Allison, 30, a gardener with Blackpool Council, is among those to benefit, having just completed a 10-week computer course. "It's completely opened up the world of computers to me," he says. "My daughter always goes on about computers and now I can sit down with her on the computer and share that."

Although happy in his current job, he has one eye on the future and is keen to sign up for "any course I can get my hands on" (maths is next). "There will come a time when I won't want to work outside in all weathers and this is the way to get up the ladder," he says.

Employers are also reaping the benefits. First Bus UK, for example, has been working with the Transport & General Workers' Union for four years and now has over 100 trained learning reps and a network of 40 learning centres.

Last year, 9,000 employees gained certificates in subjects ranging from digital photography to GCSE English. The result: savings of least £2.8m in recruitment costs alone and the staff turnover rate of 30 per cent cut in half.