From education to employment

unionlearn is the learning and skills organisation of the TUC. This article looks at its work in th

With much of the North West’s traditional industrial activity having been transformed, reduced or removed over the last twenty years, the region is going through a period of change. The North West pioneered the approach to workplace learning that led to the creation of the Union Learning Rep (ULR). That fresh approach to learning has led to the North West boasting one of the most successful regional education programmes, with student numbers up from 7,500 a year in 2000 to over 11,000 in 2005.

At present, the region’s education programme is still growing. With a dedicated unionlearn team covering all parts of the region, a lot is being achieved. This year there are over 1,500 Skills for Life learners, more than 70 workplace learning centres are supported which means that 15,000 union learners are engaged in the region. Many of those are returning to learning for the first time since school and may never have done so if it were not for the easily accessible opportunities offered by workplace learning through unionlearn.

Unionlearn in the North West works closely with its key partners, the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) and the Regional Development Agency (RDA), supporting the LSC’s Train to Gain service to help businesses get the training they need. We also promote union work with sector skills bodies and further education providers. Many of the 14 highly successful TUC education centres based in FE colleges, have received a Grade 1 in Ofsted inspections. Unionlearn also works with another seven colleges to deliver Skills for Life and vocational learning.Higher education links are being developed through Aimhigher while information, advice and guidance is progressing through work with Next Steps. So we are building from a firm foundation of excellence.

Unionlearn is developing rewarding links across the region, finding learning opportunities in all towns and cities and across all manner of workplaces. A number of local authorities, parts of the NHS and major companies such as Merseytravel, the Royal Mail and Airbags International are turning to unionlearn as the logical choice for improving the skills levels of their workforce. However, it’s not just about helping people in work. With the huge Colgate-Palmolive plant at Trafford Park, near Manchester, set to close at the end of the year with the loss of 350 jobs, unionlearn was invited in by management. Six learning reps from the unions Unite (Amicus section) and USDAW were quickly trained to carry out skills assessments and started working with nearby North Trafford College to carry out a learning needs analysis. More than 130 staff said they wanted to work towards achieving NVQs and reps started pilot schemes for literacy and numeracy, which led to many Colgate workers taking National Tests. Reps also worked with Manchester’s City College to put on technology courses to help Colgate staff achieve the European Computer Driving Licence (ECDL). The first NVQ pilot schemes have now started and over 200 staff have now embarked on a National Test, ECDL or NVQ.

When the Colgate plant closes, the work is being moved to Poland. In nearby Cheshire, the roles are reversed, with thousands of Poles settling in the county. As a result, unionlearn has teamed up with the Fire Brigades Union (FBU) and the Communication Workers Union (CWU) to hold English for Speakers of Other Languages (ESOL) classes at Crewe fire station for locally-based Poles. This type of work is one of the clearest ways of showing the benefits of learning that unionlearn can offer while also helping to prevent migrant workers being exploited or used to undermine organised workforces.

Cheshire has also seen unionlearn assisting deaf workers in the Royal Mail. Project Worker Ged Bretherton teamed up with Royal Mail workers and the Council for the Advancement of Communication with Deaf People (CACDP). The result is the first business-based learning centre to be officially recognised as a deaf awareness centre and a training DVD for deaf awareness that will now be circulated throughout the Royal Mail.

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