Community Learning Champions in Newcastle

Newcastle UNISON is leading a unique partnership project with Newcastle City Council to develop Community Learning Champions to spread the word about lifelong learning in Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) and other communities in the city.

The branch is the only union organisation to secure funding from the Community Learning Champions programme financed by the National Institute for Adult Continuing Education (NIACE), which it did in the second round in 2010.

“We applied for the funding because we knew we could deliver by building on the work we’ve done with vulnerable workers within the city council who were themselves from a diverse set of communities across the city,” explains Coordinator Rizwan Sheikh.

The Newcastle Community Learning Champions Project initially approached council workers from the Sudanese, Iranian, Brazilian, Pakistani and Congolese communities to identify potential learning champions and then broadened its approach, spending three months reaching out to organisations that worked with community groups on learning and training, learning providers and individuals.

Since then the project has run three training courses – in September 2010, March and May 2011 – and trained more than 20 community learning champions.

The nationally accredited course at Level 2 runs for 30 hours over six days and involves participants writing a case study based on an interview with a member of their community about their learning needs and researching informal learning opportunities available in their neighbourhoods.

While it adheres to the guidelines set out by NIACE, the project tailors the course to the needs of the participants, Rizwan says.

“We’re looking at the people in the room and what their needs are and where they’re coming from in terms of the communities they live in and we can build in exercises accordingly,” he says.

“The idea is to give participants the tools, the knowledge and the confidence to encourage members of their communities to get involved in learning as a means of progression – it’s a ‘self-help’ approach to community development,” Rizwan says.

And that’s exactly what’s happening. For example, two members of the Sudanese community from the first cohort of trainees afterwards set up a meeting that attracted 40 members of their community to promote learning opportunities to them.

As a result, they’re now looking to set up a community learning organisation of their own, with the help of follow-on training Rizwan has been helping them secure for free from Newcastle Council for Voluntary Service (CVS).

In addition, the branch is running a free 10-week basic IT course in May 2011 aimed at helping members of the Iranian community.

“Most people think learning and training costs money and it does in most cases but we’re providing an opportunity to get that training and get on that learning ladder free at the point of use,” Rizwan says.

Newcastle UNISON’s long experience in union learning has been “absolutely key” to the project’s success to date, Rizwan argues.

“Learning and development has always been integral to union  work in this country alongside the bread and butter industrial issues, and our work with Community Learning Champions is part of that spectrum of what unions are there for – what we’re doing is connecting with the communities we represent on a daily basis in a new way,” he says.

 “We would not be able to do this had we not already been involved in learning and development in the way that we are – supporting vulnerable workers, helping adult social care staff through the Bridges to Learning project, recruiting and training the number of ULRs we have: if we hadn’t already got that track record, we wouldn’t have been able to pursue this.”

The project’s partnership approach has also been crucial. “From the outset, this has been a partnership project. UNISON is the key, we’re the driving force, but we wouldn’t be doing this without the support of the learning and development coordinator and Citywide Learning within the council and without the support of the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) who provide an experienced, qualified tutor who’s also a community activist,” he points out.

An advisory group oversees the project, with representatives from Citywide Learning, WEA, Jobcentre Plus, Newcastle Futures (which provides advice and support to local unemployed people) and Newcastle City Libraries.

The project is picking up a fair head of steam already. “I’m getting contacted daily by people who are interested in the training and the follow-on training: the work we’re doing is already having a cumulative effect which we knew would happen although we didn’t realise it was going to happen quite like this,” Rizwan says.

But it faces the major obstacle of time-limited funding. “There’s not yet any guarantee of continuation funding beyond July 2011 and no discussions yet of any of our partners taking on more financial responsibility – it would be a travesty if the project had to end just when we’re beginning.”

Working with community groups allows the union to encourage people beyond the workplace to broaden their horizons. “I think engaging with the community on learning stretches people’s awareness levels of what the possibilities are for them but also shows them there’s more out there than they’ve got now, they can do more than they’re already doing,” Rizwan argues.

“The beauty of adult learning is that it’s affirming and confidence-building and gives you the encouragement to do more and learn more – participants on our training courses are saying ‘I now what to do this’ or ‘I now want to do that’ and most of them of people who haven’t engaged in any learning for a number of years – and that’s the difference that we can make.”