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When it comes to developing speaking and listening skills, the low-paid, low-skilled workplace presents challenges and opportunities. It challenges those aspects of the Skills for Life strategy oriented to teacher-led groups of individuals seeking qualification outcomes from substantial pieces of classroom learning. This sort of learning does occur at work but, because of pressure of work, it is not generally an option for low-paid, low-skilled workers (Fuller et al., 2005).[4] In other words, to improve the speaking and listening skills of the low-skilled workforce we may need to complement classroom learning with other models.

Further, it is important to recognise that with the best will in the world employers pay people to work not study (Unwin et al., 2005).(5) Organisations that regularly release groups of staff to study for qualifications that their jobs do not require are hardly operating cost-effectively. Efficient organisations make better use of the labour they are hiring. None of which is to say that employer organisations do not make time for learning. As described above, they mandate it: appraisal, statutory and mandatory training, induction, team meetings, supervision – all have learning as their aim, albeit another kind of learning. But what return do employer organisations generate from their investment in those activities? What might the answer to that question imply for publicly funded interventions that aim to develop the speaking and listening skills of low-paid workers?

What of the speaking and listening skills themselves? The mix of native speaker with non-native speaker as a feature of the low-skilled workplace was commented on above and this surely is likely to continue for some time to come. This would suggest that the speaking and listening skills demanded of native speakers extend beyond the mere accommodation of colleagues with limited English to some sort of inter-cultural communicative competence. 

But the demand for inter-cultural communicative competence surely extends further. As a collective enterprise, work demands active collaboration. Organisations are rarely democratic or equitable. Their stratifications draw from and reinforce the divisions and sub-cultures of the wider society, each with its own discourse community and its own literacy. The power relations that generate those class divisions and sub-cultures in society at large may be intensified at work. No wonder then that in addition to technical jargon, shibboleths abound (exemplified not only in ‘management speak’ but also in ‘worker speak’). All this seriously obstructs collaboration.

To collaborate effectively, workers must surmount these obstructions. Managers must be able to speak and listen to their staff. Just as importantly, staff must be able to speak and listen to their managers. The experiences of the Stepping Stones programme suggest that developing speaking and listening skills is very much about developing the ability of workers to negotiate their own organisations, that is: to move into ‘foreign’ discourse communities within their own organisation. 

A lesson for those seeking to facilitate the development of workers’ skills is that when classroom learning time is not available, it is worth investigating the learning potential of the activities that the employer organisation is willing to invest in.



Belfiore, M., Defoe, T., Folinsbee, S., Hunter, J. and Jackson, N. (2003) Reading work: literacies in the new work order, NY, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates.

DfEE (2001) Skills for Life: the national strategy to improve adult literacy and numeracy, London, Department for Education and Employment.

DH (2000) NHS Plan, London, Department of Health.

DH (2001) Working together – learning together, London, Department of Health.

DH (2002) HR in the NHS plan, London, Department of Health.

DH (2004) The NHS knowledge and skills framework, London, Department of Health.

Felstead, A., Ashton, D. and Green, F. (2000) ‘Are Britain’s workplace skills becoming more unequal?’, Cambridge Journal of Economics24 (6), pp. 709–27.

Fuller, A., Ashton, D., Bishop, D., Butler, P., Felstead, A., Jewson, N., Lee, T. and Unwin, L. (2005) ‘Who learns what at work?’, presented at the 4th International Conference on Researching Work and Learning, University of Technology, Sydney, Australia, December.

Hall, P. A. and Soskice, D. (2001) ‘An introduction to varieties of capitalism’, in Hall, P. A. and Soskice, D. (eds) Varieties of capitalism, Oxford, Oxford University Press, p. 15.

Leaver, M (2005) ‘Chief Executive Trevor Campbell Davis meets the staff’, ORH News, March. Available at:

Mahwah, N. J. and Jackson, N. (2001) ‘Writing up people at work: investigations of workplace literacy’, Literacy and Numeracy Studies, 10, pp. 1–2.

Stepping Stones (2001) Organisational needs analysis report, Oxford, Stepping Stones programme.

Stepping Stones (2005) ORH Estates and Facilities Directorate: ORH Facilities Team appraisal: summary report, Oxford, Stepping Stones programme.

Stepping Stones (2006) Workplace practices and processes to communicate the job, Oxford, Stepping Stones programme.

Unwin, L., Felstead, A., Fuller, A., Lee, T., Butler, P. and Ashton, D. (2005) Worlds within worlds: the relationship between context and pedagogy in the workplaceLearning as Work Research Paper 4, Leicester, Centre for Labour Market Studies, University of Leicester.


(4) It is well established that people with higher levels of initial education and qualifications and who occupy more senior positions in the workforce have disproportionately more opportunities to participate in formal training events, particularly those which lead to further qualifications. See for example Felstead, A. et al. (2000).

(5) The primary function of any workplace is not learning but the production of goods and services and the achievement of organisational goals determined internally and/or shaped by others such as head offices, parent companies and government departments. Furthermore, organisations in the public and private sector exist within the boundaries of a political economy and ‘face a set of coordinating institutions whose character is not fully under their control’ (Hall and Soskice, 2001).