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In the middle of July this year, I found myself at the TUC’s head office in London amongst 200 union officers and members, MPs and other guests. It was one of those hot summer evenings (remember them?!) and the room was full of people passionate about their cause – none more so than Liz Smith OBE, who’s retirement had brought us together. I’ll admit to feeling a little bit out of place – I have never been a union member (do we have a learning for e-learning?!), let alone a union activist! But I have known Liz and respected her work for a number of years and, although a little daunting at first, it was a real privilege to be there & to soak in the atmosphere of celebration.
Just before Liz retired, she spent some time with me looking back at some of the achievements of unionlearn under her leadership. Liz Smith was the TUC’s Learning Services National Officer prior to unionlearn being established in April 2006. Under her direction, unionlearn is now the biggest union learning organisation in the world, set up to encourage lifelong learning amongst members. Last year alone it brought a range of learning (from basic skills through to management and higher level learning) to quarter of a million learners.
Unions and learning
The main image that the public have of unions is often based around their focus on improving the conditions of pay and wellbeing of their members. But they have also had a strong commitment to learning and development both within the unions themselves and also for union members in order to open up life chances for all. Over the last year for example, one of the key tasks of the organisation has been to help unions protect their more vulnerable members from the effects of economic downturn.
The formal learning system lets many people down but learning can transform lives by building self confidence and opening new doors. The workplace is a good place to start as it is where most people spend most of their time. One of Liz’s visions for unionlearn was to help workers contribute, build their skills and have the opportunity for progression.
Union learning reps – role models at the coal face of business
This learning focus is attracting a new kind of union activism on a local level – unionlearn have now recruited over 23,000 union learning representatives (ULRs) from within the union network, 35% of these individuals had not been involved in active union work before. They act as a peer role model to encourage individuals to overcome their preconceived ideas about learning.
The ULRs operate in workplaces where unions are recognised to promote learning providing advice and support and to work with employers to identify learning via the workplace, considering the right format of learning for the individuals and negotiating terms around learning such as time and opportunity to learn. They work to encourage managers to value learning, to ensure that employers allocate time for learning and encourage staff to make the most of the learning available and are active supporters of the flexible and accessible learning offered by technology. (For those of us working to get business engagement with new ways of learning – the ULRs could be handy to get to know – but more of that later!)
Harnessing technology in the workplace
Liz Smith’s legacy at Unionlearn includes the creation of a strong foundation in the effective use of learning technology. Liz strongly believes that it is critical to provide choices for individuals who operate in different personal and workplace contexts. The traditional classroom had let a lot of people down and was often limited; the effective use of learning technologies within programmes increases the opportunity for fairness and equality. As a result unionlearn have been at the forefront of identifying ways of stimulating innovation and identifying good practice with learning technologies.
However they were careful to walk before they could run and initially established a joint project with learndirect to establish U-net, a network of learning centres in the workplace, union offices and within TUC education centres. Learndirect offered an established range of products with back-up and national tests together with a network of learning centres where staff can work at their own pace but supported by others. There are now over 400 union led centres some in partnership with learndirect and others with local providers .They vary in size, some serving hundreds of workers, others being outreach pods that serve hard to reach workers – a model which is unique to the U-net network.
This year, the U-net network was subject to an Ofsted inspection and it has to be said, the results were glowing! The report places U-Net among the best providers in the country, awarding a Grade 2 for all aspects of learning provision. Ofsted judged overall success rates for skills for life learning as above national average and, importantly in an economic downturn, that ‘learners develop good skills and improve their employability and careers prospects’. Ofsted also praised the influence that the U-net service had on progression as more than half of the skills for life learners went on to additional learning programmes. Significantly, the report highlighted that learners themselves cited the ULR as the most important factor in getting them involved in learning. Ofsted also said that the ULRs offered outstanding peer support that involved being a mentor, advocate, advisor, negotiator and role model – in fact a model definition of a workplace e-learning champion!
Practicing what they preach
Unionlearn don’t just support the idea of using technology for their members, they also make sure that it is incorporated within their own reps, providing ULR’s and union reps with the opportunity to experience flexible blended learning first hand. TUC education offer union reps training on a wide range of subjects ( including courses on tackling racism, health and safety and other key topics as well as learning programmes for the ULRs) and have worked with unionlearn to make sure that they can be offered online to support work life balance of participants. The ULRs also use an online tool called the climbing frame to help them provide appropriate advice and guidance as they consult with staff members so technology really is a way of helping them to connect and serve those that they are looking to inspire.
Unionlearn are also pushing the boundaries of new innovation, working in collaboration with partners including training providers, sector skills councils and business. A good example is the work of the Bloom project – through the Bloom project (bite sized learning objects on mobiles), ULRs worked on a project investigating the use of mobile phones to support Liverpool’s taxi drivers!
Having good experiences with online learning (both personally and for the members) also helps ULRs to support online learning in the workplace in creative ways. For example, the ULRs used a steering group approach to help breath life back into one energy company’s learning centre. Investments had been made in an onsite learning centre but it lacked buzz, had no input from staff and was inaccessible to those who may have needed it most. Through a steering group approach, the ULR were able to help turn the resource around and it is well used, an integral part of management thinking and a place where learning success is celebrated.
Is unionlearn just another quango or are businesses missing a trick?
The Union Learning Fund receives a considerable amount of government money and some might be tempted to dismiss unionlearn as ‘just another government quango’.
Naturally Tom Wilson, Liz’s successor, would beg to differ and feels that employers which work with trade unions on workplace training to beat effects of the recession could really benefit saying ‘Evidence shows that those organisations which work with unions on learning often see better industrial relations, lower sickness and absence rates and big increase in morale.’
Having now met more of the individuals behind unionlearn at the party in July, I find myself agreeing with Tom. From my conversations with Liz, I see that ULRs and the team she is leaving behind at unionlearn continue to be passionate about the same things that most of the rest of us are - delivering more skills to more people, supporting career progression, developing talent and introducing innovative learning methods to engage those who’s needs traditionally have not been met.
For those that know the Towards Maturity research, we know that reluctance of staff to change is the most significant barrier to the effective use of learning technologies in the workplace. More successful businesses are more likely (amongst other things) to focus on individual need, motivation, choice and career progression.
For those employers who are struggling to engage staff, particularly those that are more vulnerable in the workplace, the peer to peer support of union learning reps could be a godsend! They are local champion on the ground, speaking the same language as staff and encouraging staff to learn and take advantage of new opportunities. They work with management to encourage a culture of learning, are well equipped by their own learning and are tireless in their campaigning for change.
Whilst Liz has now stepped down, she has left a great legacy but she would still like to see more collaborative working with employers – she believes the work of the ULR’s is not just about skills activism on the ground but a strategic approach to individual and business success. It is critical that local regions, sectors, individuals and businesses are able to be in a position to respond to change and building skills innovatively is a lifeline.
Find out more about Unionlearn at http://www.unionlearn.org.uk/
This article is also published in www.e-learningage.co.uk