We’ve come a long way in terms of the way many equalities issues are viewed, as recent news coverage has shown. But we cannot be complacent – as we know from trade union reps on the ground. There is still a long way to go before we can claim to be an equal society, but as we know, education and learning can play a key role in changing perceptions and practices.
That is why TUC Deputy General Secretary Frances O’Grady was keen to stress that importance of equalities issues and access to learning in creating a fairer society. As she addressed a unionlearn seminar entitled, ‘Access to Learning: An Equalities Issue?’, she made it clear just how many workers faced barriers when accessing learning. She pointed to the low numbers of Black and Ethnic minority apprentices, occupational segregation issues for young female apprentices, lack of funding for workplace ESOL (English for Speakers of Other Languages) provision, and the issues faced by disabled workers.
The seminar participants were keen to bring their experience to the table and in turn it was obvious that they were able to learn from the event. A range of speakers, including Maggie Galliers CBE, Principal of Leicester College, Assistant General Secretary of UNITE the Union, Gail Cartmail, and representatives of NAS, UNISON, The Age and Employment Network (TAEN) and the Equalities and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) shared many different perspectives on ensuring everyone can learn, regardless of age, race, gender, class, sexuality or any disability.
It is our belief that each and every worker should enjoy an equal chance to refresh their skills or learn something new at work. We believe this is a beneficial approach for individuals, for the collective workplace, but also for the employer and the economy. Unlocking the workforce’s potential saves money in retention and recruitment as well as fostering loyalty.
Through union learning reps and other reps, trade unions are playing their part in trying to create a fairer society. Unionlearn is urging employers to play their part in this by removing the barriers to learning which many of England's disadvantaged and low earners face in trying to improve their lot. For example, they can make training available to part-time workers, or encourage people to take online courses.
The seminar was organised to highlight the positive effect that learning has on creating tolerance and fighting prejudice in the workplace, so let me end by sharing the words of a Learning Rep at Unite, talking about their experience of learning:
“It’s definitely made me more civilised. More tolerant, I’m a lot more tolerant than I was when I was younger, and instead of looking for the bad in people now I always look for the good. Different faiths, creeds, colours – they don’t mean anything to me. Job positions don’t mean anything to me, sexuality doesn’t mean anything and that wasn’t so when I was younger. But that’s only through education and being educated, it’s not being preached at but by learning”.
Tom Wilson is director of unionlearn, the TUC's learning and skills organisation
Read other FE News articles by Tom Wilson: