From education to employment

Union Learning Representatives Driving Skills in UK, Part Two – Union Learning and the FE

FE News reporter Vijay Pattni continues his examination of the world of union learning, looking at the state of play today and the new FE White Paper.


In parity with this, the FE White Paper eschews the same principles, outlining that their “mission is not narrowly about occupationally-specific training, nor only about training people to Level 2, as the threshold for employability”¦it also extends to broad vocational and general qualifications, often valued most of all by employers”.

Indeed, this extension of skills education to cover a wider spectrum of capability certainly falls within the concern of the Union Learning Representative (ULR). Set out in the Employment Relations Act 2002, the statutory functions of the reps include analysing learning and training needs; promoting the value of learning and providing information about training and learning matters. These guidelines, set up to create a uniform standard, highlight the ongoing and interactive nature of the rep’s responsibility.

Worrying Figures

Yet this responsibility comes with a disheartening set of statistics. Throughout the period 2004-2005, the ULR’s helped approximately 67,000 employees into learning, subsequently creating a culture of learning in workplaces across the nation. But their expansion comes at a slow growth rate. Currently, there exist 12,000 ULR’s, from a union workforce of around 220,000 members.

And the difficulties continue, explains Liz Smith, National Officer for the TUC. “Managing a project such as this is never going to be straightforward, as there are always difficulties involved. For example, persuading the employer to enter into a learning agreement can be particularly tricky, and obviously, we do get examples where members have come back to us reporting obstacles.” She is quick to point out the infrequency of these incidents though. “The majority of the time we are successful, and the employers are mostly keen, allowing the ULR’s time off to continue their teaching.”

A Wide Spectrum

She continued: “They come from a variety of backgrounds. Initially, the ULR’s were shop stewards or union reps. However, we are seeing a rising quota from people who have actually undergone these training programmes; those who have actually entered into learning agreements and have come out with a better skills set have a renewed appreciation for it. They volunteer themselves so that their colleagues can also benefit.

“Obviously, some ULR’s naturally take on lower responsibilities than others, be it simply pointing others in the direction of learning providers, to actually negotiating learning agreements with employers and providers. The spectrum is wide, and while we would like to see an increase in the number of representatives, it is essential that we keep that spectrum,” she concluded.

And it seems the government’s faith in the significance and merit of Union Learning Representatives is unshakeable, which led to the 2002 Employment Relations Act allowing ULR’s statutory time off to ensure they are adequately trained and schooled. Indeed, the affirmation continues from leading industry heads, including the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, stating that ULR’s “can be important allies in promoting the value of learning and training”.

Evidently, the Union Learning Representative is an important and encouraging step in the increasing bid to elevate the status of adult skills.

Many thanks to Liz Smith, Mike Power and Andrew Pakes, from the TUC.

Vijay Pattni

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