Union Learning Fund: 'A valuable way to engage adults'

If union learning reps are not supported, a valuable way of engaging people and encouraging them into learning will be lost, writes David Hughes
15th October 2020, 5:43pm

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Union Learning Fund: 'A valuable way to engage adults'

https://www.tes.com/magazine/archive/union-learning-fund-valuable-way-engage-adults
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"They won't be interested; nobody will turn up," said the senior manager at Rolls-Royce in Derby.

It was the early 2000s and he was responding to the union learning reps who had presented a proposal for a training and learning fair aimed at all staff at one of the many sites the company operated from. Rolls-Royce employed many thousands of people in Derby, and the union learning reps were in their infancy. I was involved through the funding and support we provided from my organisation at the time, the Learning and Skills Council.

Back then, none of us knew if staff would be interested. It was a nice-sounding idea, but not without risk. I was asked by the union to help persuade the leader to give it a go. I knew then (and still do) that many adults do not view themselves as learners. Our lack of a lifelong learning culture, the sense of failure that many people have from their own experiences of school and the lack of investment by many employers all create psychological as well as practical barriers for many people that prevent them from getting back into learning.


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Psychological barriers 

The annual Learning and Work participation survey shows each year how firm that view can be for many people. In the 2019 survey, 28 per cent of people said there was no barrier to them participating in learning - they could not see the point perhaps, or just didn't think it would help them in any way. Given the rapid pace of change in technology and the dislocations in the labour market from the pandemic, it's hard to see how any one of us will be able to succeed without learning and training throughout our lives. So we need to find ways to persuade that 28 per cent that there is a point, that they can participate, that they can succeed, and that it will help them in their lives and in work.

We spend money nationally on the Careers Service which plays an important part in this, as do colleges, adult education providers and lots of third-sector organisations. Short courses, tasters, outreach all play an important part. So do union learning reps. More than 40,000 of them now, across diverse workplaces, encouraging more than 200,000 adults to participate in training and learning. The evaluation of their work and the impact they have is positive and there are lots of fantastic case studies of how it works.

The partnership between Gloucester College and Aegis union learning reps shows how in the finance sector, support was provided to workers facing redundancy through the closure of a Yorkshire Building Society. Staff were encouraged by the reps to develop transferable skills which helped them in their search for jobs.

In London, Unison learning reps won a Conel Excellence Award for supporting paramedics to achieve the necessary GCSE/FS levels in English and maths that they needed to enable them to take up further professional development opportunities with their employer.

There are many other examples all over the country. It's a simple notion - when a workmate encourages you into training or learning it feels a lot less threatening or loaded than when a manager does. It engenders self-confidence because the union learning reps are peers, mates, people like me.

Adults need to see themselves as learners

I don't know the ins and outs of the decision to stop funding Unionlearn, but I do know that if union learning reps are not supported we will lose a valuable way of engaging people and encouraging them into learning. I hope that doesn't happen because we need more adults to engage, to see themselves as learners, to have the confidence and to become lifelong learners - for their own careers, for their wellbeing and for their health and happiness.

We did persuade Rolls-Royce to support the training and learning fair. Hundreds turned up, signed up, got into learning. It was such a triumph that the managers praised their own foresight in making it happen. Success always has many parents. 

David Hughes is chief executive of the Association of Colleges

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