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Unsung hero of adult learners

Public services union Unison deserves recognition for its dedication to staff training. Martin Whittaker reports

When 13 winners stepped up to collect their Star awards last October, it was acknowledged that the new gongs were doing what they set out to do - highlighting the hidden work that goes on in further education.

Among the major players sponsoring the awards, including the Association of Colleges, the Learning and Skills Development Agency and learndirect, was another unsung hero in education and training - the public services union Unison.

The union has come a long way since its forerunner, the National Union of Public Employees (NUPE), first began offering its members access to learning in the late 1980s.

Today, Unison - Britain's biggest trade union with more than 1.3 million members - has become a major promoter of education and training in the workplace.

More than 2,000 advisers and learning reps give advice and guidance on learning opportunities, helping 10,000 learners a year to sign up for courses.

A visit to the website of its learning arm, Unison Open College, gives a taste of the range of opportunities it offers. There are basic skills courses, Return to Learn programmes, opportunities to take Open University degrees, professional development training, GCSEs and A-levels, as well as a wide range of recreational courses fromcreative writing to garden design.

Steve Williams, head of the Open College, says the lure of learning is boosting membership. "People see it as a really positive benefit of being in the union," he said.

"If you're a low-paid worker and you get time off to do learning - in some cases it's 60 hours, which is quite a substantial amount of paid release - people see that as a significant benefit."

Unison's work in lifelong learning pre-dates the union's creation from a merger of NUPE and two other public-sector unions in 1993. It started with the Return to Learn programme, initiated four years earlier by NUPE and the Workers' Educational Association, for members who had missed out on education and training. These were often low-paid, low-skilled workers - many of them women.

The union built on this, launching its Open College initiative - a flexible programme which allows members to access education and accreditation at different levels, which they can dip into to suit their own needs.

By the mid-1990s, public service employers were also waking up to the fact that there were huge basic skills and training deficiencies among their staff. Now, the union has 400 learning partnerships with employers in sectors including the health service, local government and among support staff in schools and colleges.

The partnerships have been acknowledged to be particularly effective in boosting the skills of unqualified staff in health and social care.

Two years ago, legislation gave union learning reps and advisers the right to paid release to do training and to carry out their roles - a breakthrough described as an "historic achievement" by Unison's general secretary Dave Prentis.

Another identified area of need for education and training is among support staff in schools.A Learning and Skills Council survey found that less than half of school support staff, other than teaching assistants, had been offered any training in the past two years.

Yet the responsibilities and roles of school staff are widening with national initiatives such as extended schools and workforce reform. The union is developing a website offering careers and training advice to members working in schools, including teaching assistants, school meals staff, caretakers, technicians and librarians.

For Unison members, seeing support staff winning a Star award is the icing on the cake. "We want our members to get recognition, because those we are most interested in giving opportunities to are people who have never had any significant life chances," said Steve Williams.

"These are people who often left school at 15, 16 or earlier and they found themselves in a job where they're low-paid and have low status.

"If people start to get awards and they can see the union working with good employers, they will start to value themselves more - and that's such a powerful thing."

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