From education to employment

Moving on: workplace learning . . . and me

lizsmith unionlearn

I will be retiring from my job as Director of unionlearn later this month. But although sad to be leaving many close colleagues I am glad to be able to report that unionlearn recorded some remarkable achievements at its annual conference in June. We have now trained more than 23,000 union learning reps (ULRs). And they have helped to ensure that over 220,000 people accessed training through the union route last year.

Praise for these great achievements of our trade unions came last week from Peter Mandelson, in his new role as Secretary of State at the new department of Business, Innovation and Skills, he said: "23,000 ULRs helping a quarter of a million workers: that’s a brilliant ratio, and the more experience they get, and the more they build their expertise, the more that ratio of people helped to those serving in that role will increase – and that’s why the government is such a strong backer of ULRs".

For the fifth year running we reported that we had overshot our target of people completing Skills for Life courses. Skills for Life is a top priority for unionlearn. With 70 per cent of people who will be in the 2020 workforce already at work it is clear that unions and employers have an important role in educating tomorrow’s workforce. We are also increasingly seeing unions help people progress to higher skills levels. This year we welcomed David Vincent, a Pro Vice Chancellor from the Open University not only to celebrate the OU’s 40th anniversary, but also celebrate the achievement of the thousands of workers who we have encouraged into higher level learning. We also launched a new initiative with Foundation Degree Forward.

Conference also welcomed the successful Ofsted inspection report on our U-Net learning centres that work with learndirect. The inspectors pointed out the partnership between employers and trade unions has produced "learning highly responsive to employers’ needs, which means learners’ needs as well". There’s much more to be pleased with in that report, which clearly shows that unions are strategic players that can make things happen for the their members as well as the organisations they work for.

Strong and meaningful partnerships between unionlearn and its stakeholders across the learning and skills world provides real hope for the future. And our vital partnerships are, of course, with employers. That’s why at our conference we launched a new publication entitled Leaders in Learning. The publication contains strong support from employers who have successfully worked with unions. "Working with the unions has been fantastic”, said Neil Scales, Chief Executive of Merseytravel. He went on to say: "when we started, I didn’t know I was going to get reduced sickness absences of two days per capita; I didn’t realise I was going to get all this increased motivation; I didn’t realise I was going to unlock the potential of my staff". Neil Scales’ views are echoed by a range of case studies in the public and private sectors and of industries. The theme is perfectly summed up by Graham Bann, Executive Director of Skills and Talent for Business in the Community, who said: "It really pays off when employers, unions and union learning reps get together". The publication can be ordered at

Much of this valuable work has been kick-started with help from the Union Learning Fund, and many companies have moved on to funding their workplace learning from their own resources. It’s a great tribute to the Government’s foresight that we have the fund, and that it has brought so many benefits to employers and their workers. It’s clear that Britain’s unions can work with many more employers to build the country’s skills base and use them effectively across the economy. Too many employers are missing a trick by not getting closer to their unions on workplace learning. To help this process forward learning and skills must remain a top priority for Government.

The TUC has also now placed its stake in the future by taking on its first apprentice. Zoe Molyneaux has joined two colleagues who are working on a project to build union work on expanding apprenticeships across the country. Therefore in signing off it’s clear to me that the future will be bright for Britain’s workplaces, if we are able to continue to build on the successes already notched up by our unions working closely with our partners, Government and employers.

Liz Smith is the director of unionlearn, which helps unions encourage lifelong learning among members


Read other FE News articles by Liz Smith:

unionlearn director says Britain’s Got Talent…

Union learning boosted as training target is surpassed

unionlearn’s Liz Smith on Ofsted success


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