Mary Famgeemootoo wrote off all thoughts of further study when she left school. Born in Mauritius, she came to the UK soon after leaving school in an era when, she says, you didn't get much education at all.
She settled as a domestic worker in the south London health service, where she stayed for 20 years.
"I never thought I'd find myself studying again," she said. "You meet other people and you learn a lot, but most of all it gives you confidence. Taking time to study and doing something to improve yourself makes you value more. You could say it's changed my life."
Now 49, Mary plans to study for NVQs and become a community health-care assistant. And she says that at work, for example, she is no longer afraid to volunteer her opinions or take the initiative, and that she gets more respect from her colleagues than before.
It is all the result of taking a course called Return to Learn under a pioneering employee development scheme involving UNISON, the largest public-sector union, the Workers Educational Association (WEA) and her employers, Lambeth NHS Healthcare Trust.
Return to Learn is a "second chance", non-vocational education programme developed by UNISON in association with the WEA for public-sector workers who have left school with few, if any, qualifications, and who lacked accessible training opportuniti es at work. It uses a mixture of individual distance learning, local study groups and day schools spread over a 10-month period and focuses on four key areas - writing, investigating, analysing and working with figures.
Since Return to Learn was first piloted in the West Midlands seven years ago, more than 5,000 UNISON members have completed the course. A 1995 survey showed that 59 per cent had carried on learning in further, higher, vocational or trade union education and 29 per cent had progressed at work through promotion, job changes, taking on additional responsibilities and workplace training.
More than 90 per cent of the students had left school aged 16 and under; 60 per cent had no qualifications before completing the course and 76 per cent earned less than the Council of Europe's decency threshold.
But what has brought the Adult Learners Learning in the Workplace award to the new Lambeth scheme is the fact that UNISON is now co-operating with employers to deliver Return to Learn, and other courses, in the workplace for all staff members within certain lower grades.
Jim Sutherland, UNISON's director of education and training, said: "You don't have to be a member of UNISON, or indeed any trade union, to benefit. What we're doing is taking our experience with programmes like Return to Learn into an occupational framework and, instead of making demands on employers, offering them a solution in today's more competitive world."
The sponsor behind the Learning in the Workplace Award is the Ford Employee Development and Assistance Programme (Ford-EDAP), the first employee-development scheme in Britain. The Ford UK scheme grew out of mutual recognition by the employer and motor industry unions that competitiveness - and jobs - depended on the skills and abilities of the workforce.
There are now an estimated 600 schemes operating in Britain but, according to the National Institute of Adult and Continuing Education (NIACE), which organises Adult Learners Week, they almost all involve employees from private companies being given incentives to take up educational and leisure pursuits in their own time and are not targeted at particular groups or grades of staff.
NIACE's planning and development officer, Alistair Thompson, takes a special interest in employee-development schemes. "What makes this scheme different is that it's happening in the hard-pressed public sector and that it's integrated into the workplace through the partnership approach with employers. Above all, it's offering something to those with the least, so it's very inclusive. "
All the students in the first Return to Learn group in Lambeth express new ambitions for the future. Jacenth Reynolds, for instance, hopes to go on to do a degree in counselling via an access course. Others want to move into the nursing profession.
Receptionist Ann Johnson, 52, is contemplati ng moving into higher education via a foundation course. She said that for employees like her in the lower-paid, lower grades in the public services, getting back into learning means the chance not just to survive, but to thrive in the age of competitive tendering, quality assurance and the like.
"In my day either you could do a job or you couldn't," said Ann. "You just went in after school and learned by doing it. There was no such thing as formal training. But these days, jobs don't last any more. Short-term contracts are the norm and you've got to be able to switch roles if you're going to get on."
After taking part in Return to Learn, Ann would apply for a higher-grade job in an area she was interested in, she said.
"Doing a course like this has brought me right up to the 1990s and makes me realise what I'm capable of."
Senior managers at Lambeth confirmed that they felt staff who had participated in the new scheme were more confident, more motivated and more ready to take on new responsibilities and new roles in the workplace.
Erville Millar, chief executive of Lambeth NHS Healthcare Trust, said: "Workplace education not only promotes personal development, it also enables the trust to respond positively to competitive internal-market demands for efficiency and accountability."
It is a year since the first partnership scheme was launched at Lambeth and there are now 40 other similar agreements between UNISON and employers in the public health, local government and education sectors around the country. It all bodes well for the future of Learning in the Workplace.
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