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'Buenos dias' at the Co - op

The University for Industry's Learndirect centres are paving the way for the future of work-based learning. Phil Revell looks at how retail staff are learning Spanish, and below, RAF servicemen brush up on their computer know-how

PAT Oliver, a clerical assistant, is learning Spanish. Once a week, she leaves work at the Co-operative Society's head office in Manchester and crosses Hanover Street to The Workshop, a new city learning centre. This kind of adult education is hardly new; indeed, thousands of people attend courses. But Pat is surfing the leading edge of several government projects.

First the venue. The workshop is a Learndirect centre, one of 700 across the UK promoted by the University for Industry as a way to facilitate lifelong learning. Pat isn't actually following a Learndirect course, partly because the centre isn't actually finished, despite a snazzy prime ministerial launch of the project back in the autumn. Pat's course is an entry-level Spanish course delivered by Manchester College of Arts and Technology (ManCat).

But ManCat didn't sell the course to Pat: she signed up at her workplace. In fact, all the people on the course are Co-op employees and all the course organisation is done by Pat's learning rep at work.

Joan Lyall is a Co-op employee seconded to USDAW, the union for staff in the retail and office sectors. She answered a union advertisement last year and became a learning rep - to promote education in the workplace.

"ManCat generously allowed us to have some basic IT courses," she says. "And we managed to get 30 learners. We've followed that with some basic Spanish courses over 15 weeks. That was so successful that we are now running it over two nights." She adds that she is using the centre because it is convenient and available.

USDAW negotiated with a variety of bodies to establish a dual facility that would be open to Learndirect clients and others. The new learning reps arose out of Union Learning Programmes, which have been in operation for some years.

Alan Manning, a Trade Union Congress regional official, says:"They started in the North-west with a series of conversations with the training and enterprise councils, who were struggling to meet their IIP targets. We argued that we - the unions - could provide a different route to employers."

There is now an infrastructure of TUC programmes, with project workers who go out to visit companies. "We run briefings, put stewards through trainig needs analysis courses," says Manning.

Learning reps are not shop stewards, but have a similar role, he adds.

"These people are advocates of learning in the workplace, providing front-line advice and guidance to members, working alongside employers in terms of putting on programmes for staff and negotiating with employers about the introduction of new training programmes."

Since 1998, the programme has been supported with money from Westminster; the Government's Union Learning Fund began in 1998 when pound;12.5m was set aside to establish a four-year support programme.

In Manchester, Joan Lyall's success in recruiting workers to the courses has attracted the attention of the management at the Co-op.

"The Co-op group have now asked me in and we are going to try and put some people through key skills training," she says. "We're starting a pilot to put between 50 and 100 people through a diagnostic course to see what training they need.

"This is a first for the Co-op group because it's personal development, not job-related. They've never been into personal development."

To help pay for the courses, Joan is encouraging colleagues to sign up for Individual Learning Accounts (ILAs).

"I applied for my ILA," recalls Pat Oliver. "I wouldn't have heard about these accounts had it not been for the Spanish. I didn't mind paying pound;25."

Pat Lyall's success in Manchester emphasises the potential for schemes that promote learning at work. Whether employers will be easily persuaded to assist the training - either with facilities or with matching funding - remains to be seen.

James Rees, USDAW's regional rep, says that some employers are reluctant to allow learning reps the time and space to operate. He would like to see some statutory provision made for the programme, perhaps giving reps the same rights as health and safety representatives.

"We know that when we can get a sympathetic employer to okay the access, we can engage people in learning," he says.

It is possible that learning and skills councils could promote the scheme with employers and assist with venues and course negotiation.

Pat Oliver is interested in the next level of Spanish. Whether the Co-op benefits from a Spanish-speaking employee is arguable, but there must be a clear gain from employees who are actively developing their skills, confidence and abilities - especially when it is taking place in a work context alongside other employees.

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