From education to employment

unionlearn Director’s exclusive FE News co

As most colleagues in the FE sector might agree, our jobs don”t often allow for much glamour. But on World Book Day (1st March), unionlearn events hosted “Quick Reads” authors Ricky Tomlinson on the Mersey Ferry, Minette Walters on a learning bus at Dorchester Fire Station, and Sue Townsend at the Midland Mainline Learning Academy. Frances O”Grady, Deputy General Secretary of the TUC was whisked off on a ferry across the Mersey with Ricky, a well-known supporter of the trade union movement. Sue Townsend was fascinating as she expressed her passion not only for writing, but for reading. Her commitment to social justice is evident in her characterisations, and has made her an international bestseller. Over the years I have attended a lot of such events, but I never cease to be struck by personal learning stories and hearing how people returning to learning has enhanced their lives and career opportunities.

In the more sedate surroundings of the Houses of Parliament such stories of lives being changed through learning were revealed to a cross party group of MPs. These learning experiences were shared with our legislators by two stars of a different kind. They are union learning reps (ULRs) Hayley Pickles and Kenneth Aitchison. Hayley is a cook at Tesco in Scarborough, and Kenneth is Head of Professional Development at the Institute of Field Archaeologists.

These two ULRs from shopworkers” union USDAW, and professionals” union Prospect respectively, appeared before the Education and Skills Committee at Portcullis House last week. I was also there to give evidence before this Select Committee. Hayley spoke about how she had helped over 500 people access courses over the past 18 months and how she herself had become a shop steward and union learning rep. Hayley said: “I always just saw myself as the Mum or the wife, and learning has really opened doors for me, I see myself so differently now. Learning is for the rest of my life”.

She emphasised the power of peer pressure, outlining the confidence people can gain through a taster course, and by going together with their work colleagues to a class. Kenneth Aitchison eloquently put the case for many of those in the workplace who are often assumed not to have skills needs ““ graduates and professionals. He welcomed the suggestion of an industry levy for training, similar to that in the construction industry and highlighted the need for Continuous Professional Development. He also told MPs that he was a first-time trade union activist, and how ULRs had breathed a new lease of life into workplaces. His comment was echoed by Jeff Ennis MP, who praised the work of ULRs in his own constituency, Barnsley East and Mexborough.

It can be daunting to appear in front of a Select Committee but Hayley and Kenneth’s dedication and passion for learning came across to committee members, as did the clear need for ULRs to receive much more support, and time off to train and do their duties properly. MPs should be left in no doubt that where learning agreements exist between unions and employers, ULRs are changing lives across the country. Not every ULR gets to share their story with Members of Parliament, but every ULR is part of the success story of union learning.

Liz Smith, Director, unionlearn.

Related FE News articles:

“Not So Sweet Sixteen” ““ 05/02/07

Liz Smith on Mondays ““ 08/01/07

Liz Smith on Mondays ““ 04/12/06

Liz Smith on Mondays ““ 06/11/06

Liz Smith on Mondays ““ 02/10/06

“6 Million People Have Literacy Problems” ““ 04/09/06

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