Building bricks as they learn

14th November 2003 at 00:00
Workers who train on east London building sites have won a beacon award. Ngaio Crequer reports

It began life on a barge in the Thames. Then it moved from one building site to another. Now the learning centre for construction workers is about to get a permanent home nestled under the Canary Wharf 35-floor tower in reach of thousands of people who pass by there every day.

The initiative is a partnership between Lewisham College Trade Union Studies Centre, the Union of Construction and Allied Trades and Technicians (UCATT) and Canary Wharf Developments. Scaffolders, bricklayers, carpenters, shop workers and security guards - a largely mobile and casual workforce - have been given opportunities to return to learning on the biggest building site in Europe.

The initiative has won the Beacon Award for widening participation sponsored by The TES and the Association of Colleges.

Paul Donnolly is a scaffolder who 12 months ago was computer illiterate, and not much good with the pen either. But through the learning centre he is now a dab hand at information technology. He produces his own spreadsheets and has a health and safety qualification under his belt.

His new skills have helped him to become the UCATT convenorsteward on his site which employs more than 660 men. He has also been trained as a learning rep.

"I am keen that other workers should have the opportunity to learn. I am now organising people on my site to become learning reps so that we can encourage others into education," he says.

By law, workers have to have an induction in health and safety regulations before they can begin work. Tagged on to these programmes are sessions, held in the many canteens on site, which give people an introduction to which other courses are on offer.

The workers can drop into the learning centre at any time - during their lunch break or at the end of their shift. Many of the workers are from eastern Europe and they are able to take English for speakers of other languages courses. There is some paid release by employers.

"The results have surpassed all expectations in a sector that has little or no learning culture," said Rossina Harris, TUC programme leader at Lewisham.

"It is a big step for some people. The induction sessions are crucial - and exciting. Sometimes we have as many as 200 people. We have to tell them where the centre is that day. I think we should go into removals. But soon we will have a permanent home."

Chris Tiff is the UCATT regional organiser and he completed all is union training at Lewisham. "The college has a real understanding of the needs of workers and they can work flexibly at any hour required to fit in with shift patterns. The three partners have established a very fruitful initiative that has meant that at long last building workers can be educated at their place of work. It is a model for the industry."

It helps that the union has a good relationship with employers. "I am not into that 'everybody out' mentality, said Mr Tiff. "I have got my feet under the table. I can get time off for people if they need it."

With 12,000 workers on site at any one time and another 10 towers planned for the next decade the learning centre will have no shortage of clients.

Moreover contractors on other sites have visited Canary Wharf in the hope of replicating the centre's success. Earlier in the year the partners were invited to Madrid to address representatives from all over Europe about their learning programmes.

The centre has motivated people to learn and improved their employability - Paul Donnolly now earns more than his tutors.

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