From education to employment

See us recorded live on the web! – Liz Smith, Director unionlearn writes exclusively for FE News

In my last column I wrote in anticipation of our annual unionlearn conference, which took place in June. But thanks to having the event live on the internet, we are still feeling the waves ripple in. Our aim was to make our conference accessible to as many people as possible. This was not just because we were proud to boast a stellar cast including Lenny Henry, Val McDermid, John Denham, Brendan Barber and Frances O’Grady. But also because we wanted to share the stories of our real stars – ULRs and learners  – with a wider audience.

So we took advantage of webcast technology to broadcast our conference on the internet. Furthermore it’s now available for you to watch during the next six months because it is archived. Go to the unionlearn home page to laugh with Lenny Henry, or find out what makes Wire in the Blood and Quick Reads author Val McDermid tick –   

It was a time to celebrate. TUC General Secretary Brendan Barber announced that there were now over 20,500 ULRs and that more than 200,000 people had taken courses through the trade union route. In addition, it was a fantastic day for Trade Union Education, who reported that over 50,000 union reps were trained over the previous year. This was a record number, and double that of 1997.

The heady day of activities included a speech by Secretary of State for DIUS, John Denham MP, who announced the consultation on the Right to Request Time to Train. And interviews with Union Learning Reps (ULRs) from a range of unions and parts of the country. The afternoon workshops saw the launch of several new publications (see

As might be expected at a gathering of ULRs discussion was paramount, whether Q and As to John Denham or networking and informal chats. However, one of the most important issues was the results of the recent ULR survey carried out by the Business School at Nottingham University. Over 1,000 ULRs responded to this survey and the headline results were extremely telling.

In particular, the analysis showed the key things that ULRs think impact on their effectiveness. Top of the list is the relationship with the employer, which is hardly surprising.  If they feel that the employer values them, then they are much more effective.  If their employers consult them about learning opportunities and they are able to negotiate with them, then again this affects their work.

Other factors include whether ULRs have sufficient time to carry out their role and whether the size of their constituency (the number of members they represent) is realistic. The survey also showed that the presence of a learning centre is a very helpful factor in engaging learners.

Finally – and of interest to policy makers – is the fact that the presence of a ULR increases employer investment in all types of training, which is good news for trade union members. This key point helps us to prioritise our future work and clearly engaging more employers is essential. The second part of the survey involves following up the employers identified by ULRs and we hope this will give us further intelligence, so that we can change even more lives through learning.

So it was a good conference and a good year, where our ULR and learner targets were overshot. Reasons to be cheerful, but not reasons to be complaisant as we plan for the years ahead.


Liz Smith

Director unionlearn


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