Alight here for learning

2nd June 2006 at 01:00
A learndirect centre in a bus garage canteen has increased worker enrolment tenfold. Joe Clancy reports on a trade union inspired revolution in industrial relations

The No 41 swings into the bus garage where the driver parks, leaps from his cab, and heads for the canteen to feed his hunger - not for food, but for learning. It has been a long, stressful shift, but Joseph Ssali passes colleagues tucking into bacon butties and mugs of tea to head for a door marked learndirect. This is where the father-of-four, a bus driver for two years, has been spending most of his rest periods for the past eight months, as well as time before and after his shifts.

"I have a computer at home which my wife and two older children use, but I didn't know how to use it," he says. "Whenever I asked my children to teach me they were too impatient. They explained things too quickly in a way I couldn't understand."

Passing through the canteen to the world of learning has been a turning point for him. On his first visit, two union learning representatives slowly took him through the process of basic computer skills. He is now competent enough to log on the internet to book a plumber or a holiday, and to send emails to his friends. And he wants to learn more.

He has set himself the target of passing the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL) qualification, a six-module course that develops most computer skills, including how to operate spreadsheats, databases, and deliver PowerPoint presentations.

There was one problem he faced when he started. Being Ugandan educated and with English as his second language, his literacy skills were not quite good enough to follow the course. So, with encouragement from the learning reps, he is now taking a basic skills literacy course to enable him to study for the ECDL, an internationally recognised benchmark for computer competence.

"My goal is to become as competent on the computer as my older children are," he says, "and to be able to help my younger children with their computer skills. This is the computer age and my children are happy that I can be part of it."

Nor is that the end of his learning ambitions. He would like to go on to study engineering to give him more career choices.

"Bus driving is very hard work," he explains. "It is not just the eight hours a day driving through London traffic, but dealing with the public is very difficult. By studying engineering, it could provide me with alternative career options, such as becoming a mechanic."

Since the learndirect centre opened nearly two years ago at the garage in Tottenham, north London, nearly one third of the 450 drivers, shunters, cleaners and engineers employed there have enrolled.

Having the centre in the garage, operated by the transport company Arriva, has boosted take-up dramatically. Before that, the Transport and General Workers' Union learning reps encouraged members to take courses at the learndirect centre at the College of North East London (Conel), just a few minutes walk away. But little more than a dozen took up the training offer.

Frances McGinlay, manager of the Conel learning centre who also has overall responsibility for the garage centre, said enrolments have since increased more than tenfold. "There had been a small but steady stream of people who had enough self-confidence or chutzpah to come into the college to learn," she says. "When the garage centre opened, the number of enrolments for Arriva staff went through the roof. The whole garage was really excited about it.

"It demonstrates that, despite colleges doing their damnedest to be non-threatening and inviting, adult learners remain apprehensive about coming in. To come to learn here, they have to pass through our security turnstiles. It is very discouraging. For one reason or another, they think that a college is not the place for them."

Adi Okraku, one of two Transport and General Workers' Union learning facilitators at Tottenham garage, explains: "When all people had to do was walk through one door from the canteen to access learning, the difference was phenomenal. Coming in to study has given people so much more confidence and it has helped people climb the promotional ladder. In the past, some groups just didn't apply for promotion, but now they are putting themselves forward.

"Some people who a short while ago could not use a computer now regularly come in to scan our intranet to see what jobs are available throughout the country."

Mike Wormall, the other learning facilitator, who like Adi Okraku, continues to spend at least one day a week driving a bus, says the learndirect courses have set staff on a path to additional learning.

"We now have a lot of learners who are going on to do other courses such as Spanish and French. If we have drivers who have some knowledge of other languages, it will help them communicate with tourists."

He says a significant number of drivers have also expressed an interest in learning sign language to help them communicate with their deaf passengers; a course is about to be introduced.

"That result came up in a survey of what our drivers wanted to learn and it surprised us. We hadn't thought of that," he adds.

The Tottenham garage centre is the result of a three-way partnership between the college, the union and the employers, the college providing the ten computers and tutors, the union supporting the learning reps, and the company providing the space.

Susan Neal, head of trade union education at Conel, says the learndirect centres at Tottenham and elsewhere have helped bus companies with their recruitment and retention of staff.

"Bus companies have a high staff turnover, and recruitment and training costs them a lot of money. They found that offering staff learning opportunities provided them with a much more stable workforce.

"Employee loyalty is determined by how well their employer treats them. It is not just monetary. It is how people are perceived and valued. Providing training that is not just job related but helps to develop people as individuals leads to an increased sense of loyalty."

A total of 87 learndirect centres have now been set up in workplaces throughout the country, in food factories, fire stations, supermarket distribution centres, prisons - even one at the Sellafield nuclear reprocessing plant in Cumbria.

Workplace learning has grown rapidly since the Union Learning Fund was established in 1998, when 700 union learning reps were trained in the first tranche. There are now 14,000 such reps; the target is to have 22,000 by 2010.

Such work now plays as big a role in union affairs as pay and conditions and health and safety issues; it has transformed the relationship between unions and employers.

Judith Swift, the TUC's Union Learn development manger, said increasing numbers of employers are signing learning agreements with unions, and that is having a dramatic impact on industrial relations.

"Before, the only time unions and employers had a conversation was to have an argument," she says. "Now we have found ground where we work together for the benefit of the workforce. It has helped to open up a new dialogue between us."

Tom O'Callaghan has been a bus driver for nearly 40 years and a union official since 1999. He said the introduction of learning in the workplace during the past seven years has transformed life in bus garages.

He works for Metroline, which has learndirect centres in two of its garages in north London. The company also has a learning bus, a double-decker equipped with two computers and ten laptops, to take learning around its depots.

"Everybody who works on the buses knows that drivers and engineers never talked to each other," he says. "One set drove the buses, the others repaired them, and they never mixed. But since they sit down learning next to each other they are on first names terms and the atmosphere has completely changed. And that is amazing. It has created a more confident workforce. I see people smiling a lot more now.

"If someone had told me in 1998 that this was the direction the union was going to take, I would have thought they were having a laugh with me. It is that important. It has made that big a change to people's lives.

"If I sound enthusiastic it is because it is catching."

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