Shipyard's apprentice welcomed on board

1st August 1997 at 01:00
When Jim Sutherland talks about education, his broad Scottish accent is brimming with optimism. Words like choice, achievement, success and benefit crop up with great regularity.

Jim knows what he's talking about, because education propelled him from shipyard apprentice to college lecturer and then head of education at Unison, the public-service union.

It was ideal training for his new role, leading a government investigation into workplace-based learning. His is one of three working groups under the Government's hand-picked task force which is helping shape the forthcoming White Paper on lifelong learning.

His appointment is an indication of the Labour Government's eagerness to give trade unions a greater role after 18 years in the cold. Indeed, his boss, Unison's general secretary Rodney Bickerstaff, has been appointed to the Welfare to Work task force.

Jim left school in Dunfermline at 15 with no qualifications and headed for the Rosyth shipyard. "It was a good apprenticeship and that's one of the things I'd like to recreate," he hints.

While working as a toolmaker at Rolls-Royce in Coventry, and having become senior shop steward at the plant, his life on the shopfloor ended abruptly when he took a lecturing job at Solihull College of Technology. "Being a toolmaker on Friday and an industrial relations lecturer on Monday was quite daunting," he admits.

So he enrolled on a teacher -training course and began studying part-time for a masters degree in industrial relations. "That was the most wonderful experience of my life in a sense - fitting a theoretical perspective around 18 years of practical experience in the workplace."

Then, in 1983, he was appointed first national director of education at the National Union of Public Employees. When NUPE, the National and Local Government Officers' Association and the Confederation of Health Service Employees joined forces in 1993, he found himself in charge of the biggest education department of any union, which now employs around 40 full-time staff.

But it has been his success in developing a pioneering programme of user-friendly education that has earned him the call-up from the Government. Unison's Return to Learn programme has transformed union education from the preserve of political activists to a stepping stone for the rank and file.

Since it was piloted seven years ago, some 7,000 Unison members have signed up for the nine-month course - an Open College Network-accredited scheme which bridges the gap between basic skills and university entrance. Its credentials as a vehicle for reinvigorating and reintegrating people often overlooked by conventional education easily pass muster. A total of 90 per cent of the Return to Learn students left school at the first opportunity, 60 per cent of these had no qualifications - 80 per cent have been women, 42 per cent part-timers. Three-quarters of the Return to Learn students earn less than #163;11,500.

"It's a cross-section of the very people who need access to education and training if we as a nation are going to compete. By every measure it has been a huge success."

One such measure is that around 60 per cent of students have gone on to further and higher education. A quarter have won promotion or advancement at work. Fifty companies have agreed to allow 60 hours' paid release to workers wanting to take part and more are "falling over themselves to join". One scheme, run with Lambeth Healthcare Trust, won this year's Learning in the Workplace Award.

There are dozens of success stories - of caretakers at college and healthcare assistants turned nurses. Graduates of the scheme train as voluntary education advisers to spread the word that the workplace can also be a place of learning.

"Because the courses are not done in traditional environments, people's fears disappear," Jim Sutherland explains. "People who started off with nothing and were failures at school have gone on to get degrees. The model we have developed and the opportunities that it provides is a real example of how a University for Industry can evolve. It's not just a theory - we are delivering it."

The key to its popularity lies in an approach which combines career advancement with personal development. Jim Sutherland is keen to break down the vocational and non-vocational divide. Students of the latter always bring transferable skills, not to mention newly-found confidence, to the workplace, he argues, while too much emphasis on the former can make people "prisoners in their particular occupation".

Just as he used it to break free of his background, Jim Sutherland intends to make learning a lifelong and life-affirming occupation.

"One of the things that drives me is realising that I wasn't unique. There are millions of people who leave school at 16 who will not have benefited from the formal education system but have the capacity to achieve almost anything."

The lifelong learning taskforce is chaired by Professor Bob Fryer, Northern College principal. Its other working groups are finance, chaired by NIACE director Alan Tuckett, and family and community education, chaired by Faircroft College principal Keith Jackson

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