For many in the FE sector August is a time to take stock and take advantage of a well-deserved break. It's also the time of year when we start looking ahead to the new academic year and a new set of challenges. And up and down the country over 18,000 Union Learning Reps are preparing to run new courses, engage new learners and work with new providers. People like Maria Silva at McVitie's in Carlisle, who heads up a migrant workers project, putting her own experience as a migrant worker to great use to help others. Or Stan Sharpe who runs a Learning Centre at Fletcher's Bakery in Sheffield, or Ayub Patel, a ULR at Unichem in Preston, who uses his bilingual skills to engage members of his community in learning.

As I have said in previous columns, one of the most gratifying parts of my job is meeting the people for whom it's no exaggeration to say that union-led learning has changed their lives. Throughout the summer unionlearn has been filming ULRs, union learners and HR professionals in organisations engaged with trade union learning and one message comes across loud and clear. Confidence is rising and people are hungry for more courses, more learning and more success. Watching the initial footage shot for our regional unionlearn films reminds me, as ever, that we cannot lose sight of the learners. Sometimes it is easy to get bogged down in policy, reports and strategy, which are, as we know, very important, but I am always delighted to attend the openings of learning centres or awards ceremonies to see people often getting their first certificate since leaving school. Our union learners have overcome a wide range of barriers to learning and one of our leading ULRs was even expelled from school, but is now completing a Certificate in Education! Union learning offers everyone a second chance because it is able to focus on the individual learner and offer them a unique experience of education. There are small groups, tutors and ULRs on hand willing to help and colleagues who have been through the same experience. Once an individual commits to that extremely hard first step "“ deciding that they want to return to learning, then the world of education is their oyster.

Another welcome aspect of filming was the warm words from employers who have really got on board with union learning. There are many enlightened site managers, HR professionals and Chief Executives who know that the key to a happier and more productive workforce is investment in training and education. Many also told us that the learning agenda had had a very positive effect on industrial relations, with both unions and management getting along much better as a result of working together to provide opportunities to learn. So as a new year begins, let's be heartened by the thought that there are learners out there who are about to embark on a journey to change their lives through learning.

Liz Smith is a Director of Unionlearn and writes an exclusive monthly column for FE News.co.uk. We would like to say thank you to Liz for this month's column and we are looking forward to your next piece.

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