From education to employment

Director reflects on first year of unionlearn, the TUCs learning and skills organisation.

At a critical moment in his premiership Harold Wilson once said: “a week in politics can be a long time”. By contrast the first year of the existence of unionlearn (the TUC’s leaning and skills organisation) has flown by! We”ve seen steady progress on a number of fronts.

Gordon Brown launched unionlearn last year saying: “Nothing we do in the next few months and years is more important than extending union learning”. With such an endorsement our organisation had a great send off.

At our first birthday conference (taking place today, Monday 11 June) we will reveal that the number of Union Learning Reps has increased by 3,000 to 18,000. This means that more workplaces are now benefiting from improving their workforce’s skills, which leads to big savings through higher retention rates, less absenteeism, and higher productivity.

We will also announce that during the past year more than 150,000 people have accessed courses, through our union work ““ an increase of 50 per cent on the previous year.

Our conference is a real milestone in the development of workplace learning. Unionlearn will be signing new partnership agreements that will bring significant benefits to large numbers of workers. We are working with learndirect to provide the unionlearn Learning and Careers Advice Line”. In the past only students leaving college had access to careers advice and guidance. But we want everyone to be able to find out about how and where they can learn, and what funding opportunities there are ““ all they need to do is call 08000 92 91 90.

We will also sign an agreement with the Sector Skills Councils. This will open doors to many new opportunities for union learning reps to help their colleagues into learning.

Unionlearn already has partnership agreements with the Open University, Investors in People, and the National Extension College. Such arrangements have provided many new benefits in terms of cheaper courses, and easier access to information, advice and guidance. We are also engaged in new informal work with key organisations like the BBC, bringing its Reading and Writing project into thousands of previously untouched workplaces.

Another important unionlearn development is our new Quality Award for colleges who meet our standards in provision of learning for the workforce. The award will be a beacon of good practice for unions who are seeking the best course providers. The first nine colleges to achieve the standards for the award will be presented with their plaques at our conference by Alan Johnson, Secretary of State for Education and Skills, who has been very supportive of unionlearn’s work. He commented: “Union learning reps have been hugely successful in reaching those workers who have been traditionally least likely to get involved in training. The role of the TUC has been central to the Governments skills agenda and unionlearn has been the most important development in taking this exciting agenda forward to meet the challenges which Lord Leitch set out so clearly in his report.”

So, our birthday bash will be highlighting the achievements of providers; of our union learning reps; of our work with partners; and of our unions working with employers to upskill their workforces. Unions have now signed over 1,500 learning agreements around the country. Such agreements are a living model for the Skills Pledge that the Leitch review called on employers to sign.

No wonder the Government’s Skills Envoy, Digby Jones, was reported in the Guardian as believing that the proliferation of union learning reps was smart move by the trade union movement. Digby recognises that modern unions will grow and prosper as they prove that they offer real help to their members to get on at work, and in so doing help to create more successful companies.

Unionlearn has achieved a great deal in its first year. We now play an important part in the workplace learning world. Employers, workers and the Government have, in different ways seen the added value that unions are bringing to helping solve the UK’s skills crisis. Quite a lot for unionlearn to live up to in its second year.

Liz Smith, Director, unionlearn

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