'Skills, confidence and opportunities'

For more than 20 years, the Union Learning Fund has improved people’s life chances. Now it is under threat – here’s how you can help

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For over twenty years the Union Learning Fund (ULF) has supported union learning reps and unions across the country build skills, learning opportunities and life chances across the country.

The ULF, managed through unionlearn, has been a huge success story, supporting over 200,000 learners a year.

However earlier this month the TUC received a letter from the Department for Education saying that ministers have decided to end the Union Learning Fund from March 2021.

This decision came totally out of the blue and was a shock at a time when the development of workplace skills is at the forefront of everyone’s mind, and workers and the economy face the challenge of a recovery during a pandemic.

‘Bitten by the learning bug’

Union Learning Reps (ULRs) play an important role in trade union branches today. Unite has many that have been recognised for the outstanding work they do supporting learners at work. Last year Sue Mann, a Unite ULR from Blackpool Transport was awarded ULR of the Year at the 2019 TUC Congress.

Sue was bitten by the learning bug after signing up for courses at The Learning Curve, the onsite learning centre at the bus depot.

Sue said, “I went on the course, which was lovely, and I thought, ‘I like learning!’ That gave me the bug then. I thought, I can do this – I’m not stupid like they used to tell me at school.”

Sue Mann, who is featured in the film below, isn’t the only Unite ULR to be recognised recently.

Sue Kinnaird and Danuta Smoliniec are ULRs at Seachill in Grimsby and were presented the 2018 unionlearn ULR of the Year Award for Supporting Disadvantaged Learners. Meanwhile, in 2017, Ashley Pickering, a ULR and bus driver for First Leeds in Bramley, was announced as the winner of the Festival of Learning Regional Learning for Work award.

But ULRs don’t do the role for recognition — they do it to support colleagues in building skills and confidence.

Unite ULR Richard Gilbert and colleagues have been supporting workplace learners from Kirklees Council and Kirklees Neighbourhood Housing successfully complete GCSE courses for Maths and English.

“With the support of our Functional Skills tutor myself and fellow ULR’s have helped learners at Kirklees Council get back into learning and build confidence and skills by taking GCES courses in Maths and English,” Richard explained.

“I’m also really pleased to hear from a number of learners that they see this as just that start and are looking at future GCSE courses to continue their learning journey.”

Over in Preston at the University of Central Lancashire (UCLan), Unite ULR Stuart Kinvig has been helping colleagues build their digital skills by setting up IT classes and negotiating a Learning Agreement with the employer.

Stuart is a cleaner and junior caretaker at UCLan and set up a “Computers for the Terrified” course tutored by the University, along with a “Soup and Surf” digital awareness day which has led to progression courses so that learners do not feel excluded.

The majority of leaners Stuart supports are from ethnic minority communities.

“I want to create a learning environment where learners feel part of our University and can develop their skills and knowledge to join the learning path with everyone else,” Stuart told UniteLive.

“The fact that they are learning together as work colleagues has helped them. This has given me personal satisfaction when I witness learners enjoying the ICT courses and overcoming their initial fears.”

Supporting workers ‘at a time of great personal need’

Unite ULRs are not only busy building skills to help at work, but they are also there to support workers affected by workplace closure. Unite Learning organisers were quick to act when Thomas Cook closed, threatening thousands with redundancy.

Unite Regional Education Officers were quick to work with local learning providers and careers services to run training courses and offer employability skills courses such as CV writing. The work was really appreciated by members at a difficult time.

Unite South West regional secretary Steve Preddy explained the importance of union learning to supporting Thomas Cook workers.

“Unite responded swiftly in providing assistance to members via a range of services and support mechanisms, at a time of great personal need,” he said.

“Through our network of learning teams across the country and in conjunction with colleges and other training providers, Unite was able to provide meaningful assistance and guidance to people, as they look to rebuild their lives and explore future employment opportunities.

“Learn with Unite has consistently provided a positive service to members facing redundancy and in looking to develop skillsets in ongoing areas of work.” 

These are just a few recent examples of the work that the Union Learning Fund has supported Unite deliver over the past two decades. Recently, projects supported by the ULF have not only helped develop English, maths and digital skills, but also supported apprenticeships, mental health at work and has recently helped develop green skills.

During the first national lockdown, unionlearn developed a wide range of resources and webinars to support workers furloughed or working from home, and is now developing work to help unions build a skills-led recovery that puts workers first.

Scrapping ULF ‘short-sighted and self-defeating’

This work is all under threat, and has brought unions and employers together to call for a rethink.

Unite director of education Jim Mowatt said, “At a time when the job queues are lengthening by the day due to the ravaging economic impact of Covid-19, the last thing the government should be doing is ending the Union Learning Fund which supported 200,000 learners acquire new skills, such as basic English and IT skills, in the last year alone.

“The plan to axe the scheme is short-sighted and self-defeating when there is a national crisis, as businesses close and companies shed jobs.

“We should be looking forward to a post-pandemic economic world; when a country’s skill base will provide the foundation for economic regeneration, the growth in employment opportunities and increased prosperity for all.

“A skilled workforce is the lifeblood that will spearhead the UK’s economic future in this new and changing global economy, when education and training will be at a premium,” he added.

“That’s why the Union Learning Fund should remain as an important pillar of the UK’s overall training programme – we call for the proposal to axe the fund to be rescinded immediately.”

TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady agreed.

“Union learning has helped millions of working people improve their skills and progress at work in the last 20 years,” she said.

“From basic skills and helping people learn English, to retraining for the jobs of the future, union learning transforms lives. Every year we hear from workers who couldn’t read confidently before union learning came into their life. Now they not only read their work emails, they can finally read their children a bedtime story.

 “The Prime Minister has been clear on the importance of improving skills to rebuilding the economy. Union learning is a national asset and a vital plank of building back better. The Prime Minister must reject this proposal.”

Hinkley Point C project

As well as Unite’s main ULF project, the union has also been working with partners at a ULF-funded project based at Hinkley Point C in Somerset.

Louise Dobson, Learning and Development Lead, Hinkley Point C, explained why the project – and the Union Learning Fund as a whole — was so vital.

“The Hinkley Point C Project is very supportive of the concept and application of unionlearn initiatives,” she said. “The introduction of a Lifelong Learning Agreement, signed jointly between our signatory Unions and key employers on the Project, emphasises the important role that Union education and training contributes to supporting the development needs and career aspirations across a diverse workforce.”

“The withdrawal of the Union Learn Funding will have a detrimental impact on the ability to offer quality flexible learning and development solutions.”

How you can help

Despite the threat to the ULF, all is not lost. Unions and employers have been calling for the funding to continue and MP’s have been raising the issue in Parliament.

A petition started last week has already exceeded 35,000 signatories and an Early Day Motion calling on the Government to reconsider and reverse its decision has been gaining cross party support.

This is where we need you. We are calling on Unite members to support the campaign to #SaveUnionLearning. You can sign the petition – and encourage colleagues to do the same – here.

You can urge your MP to support union learning and sign the Early Day Motion.

And if you or fellow workers have benefited from union learning we’d love to hear about it. You can also share you story here.

Above all spread the word — find out more about the benefits of union learning and how it can support learning and skills in your workplace, and make sure that union learning is there for the next 20 years to support workers develop skills, confidence and opportunities.

By Keith Hatch, unionlearn project communications officer

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