Delivering learning in lockdown with UNISON

UNISON ULF Project Manager Martin Russo explains how the team is helping union members continue developing themselves even though classroom courses aren’t possible during the Covid-19 crisis.

Martin Russo

Like every Union Learning Fund (ULF) project, UNISON’s Inclusive Learning project has had to rethink its whole approach to promoting, supporting and delivering learning in the Covid-19 era, says Project Manager Martin Russo.

We’ve been transitioning a lot of our classroom-based activities to make them accessible to members online, accelerating some of the things we were planning to do digitally anyway.”

The project has been able to support a significant uptake in online learning, with the help of both its existing and its new partnerships.

Martin says:

There’s been a real jump in take-up of our online offer and some parts of our work have increased a lot more than we anticipated before Covid-19.”

The most significant new partnership has been with the Staff Skills Academy – which was already in development before lockdown.

But what began as a small-scale pilot just in March, with the union testing the water by buying 100 licences to help members access the 550-plus courses on offer through the provider, has massively expanded in the Covid-19 era.

In fact, the offer proved so popular that the union has now bought thousands of licences to help members continue learning online while classroom courses are not an option.

In addition, the project’s existing partnership with online provider Wranx has also helped learners improve a wide range of skills, especially English and maths at both functional skills and GCSE level.

The fact that it’s now so straightforward to access a wide range of union learning on smartphones and tablets has definitely helped take-up, Martin thinks.

When members want to learn on their mobiles, it’s been really valuable that they can do that with the likes of Wranx and TUC eNotes.”

Some groups of members have been swift to access development opportunities that would have been much harder to pursue in their pre-Covid working lives.

School staff are a case in point. And that’s a big bonus when so many schools have offered the lion’s share of training to their teacher colleagues in the past.

Martin said:

We’ve found that lots of teaching assistants (TAs) and other members working in schools have taken the opportunity to develop their own skills as they have had the time to do that.”

Taking these courses means they’ll be able to show how they’ve been improving themselves when they return to work.”

To help learners demonstrate they have been engaged in Continuous Professional Development (CPD), the Staff Skills Academy courses are all accredited by The CPD Certification Service.

While the project has been keen to help support members who have been furloughed from their jobs or are working from home, it has also prioritised supporting those groups of members in health and social care at the eye of the coronavirus storm.

To support residential care workers affected by the Covid-19 death toll, the member learning team (which works alongside the ULF project) collaborated with the charity Cruse Bereavement Care to develop a new videoconference course to help members deal with their own feelings of loss and respond to the grief of co-workers and residents’ families.

Feedback from members who have taken the two-hour course has been enormously positive. Within half an hour of finishing, one emailed to say the training was fabulous and she was recommending it to everyone, while another got in touch to say she found it extremely interesting and useful.

The project has been swift to use all its online resources – the Learning and Organising Services (LAOS) website and e-learning site as well as the union’s digital Organising Space – to offer a wide range of support to members and to ULRs over lockdown.

While members were already keen to improve their quality of life through subjects such as mental health awareness, stress awareness, wellbeing and creative writing before Covid-19 (the team logged that by analysing the data from the 2019–20 project year), these topics have become even more important over lockdown

So in addition to raising awareness of mental health learning opportunities via Wranx, the Skills Academy and The Open University (OU), the project is also signposting members to an online version and webinar of the stress awareness workshop, Staying Strong (a popular part of the LAOS member learning offer).

It also promoted a series of summer webinars to help different groups of members (youth workers, social workers, primary school support staff and secondary school support staff) inform, educate and safeguard young people about gaming and gambling.

And over the autumn, it will be encouraging members to take part in new online versions of three of the most popular member learning workshops in collaboration with the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA) – Power To Be You, Your Skills, Your Future, and Get That Job.

The expansion of online and digital learning does present some issues – IT problems; access to a computer or other device; and reliable broadband. But there are also important upsides, as the union’s South West region discovered when it set up its Facebook reading group.

That has been able to engage more than 100 members across the whole region partly because no one has to make the time to travel to a real-world meeting, for example. The ULF project itself is benefitting from something similar, Martin points out.

Martin explained:

We used to schedule project worker meetings once a year because they were quite difficult to organise with everyone in different locations across the country and working to different schedules, particularly those project workers who are seconded onto the project part time.”

But we’ve had a whole series of meetings online now which we haven’t had before, which is great because the project workers do really valuable work engaging learners and promoting the project.”

The project workers have been playing an increasingly important role in recent years, Martin says.

When I started five years ago, there were just two project workers and now there are nearly 20, which has made a really significant impact for thousands of learners and right across UNISON and also helped put learning on the map with many employers,” Martin points out.

The team now includes 12 project workers employed by different regions of the union plus eight branchbased project workers, seconded from their substantive posts in local government and the health sector (two of the eight have had to return to their posts because of Covid-19).

Martin said:

It’s been great to see how the project workers have all developed and grown in their roles, setting up learning activities, negotiating learning agreements and growing UNISON membership.”

The project has also worked with many of the union’s regional learning teams to help promote and deliver UNISON’s member learning offer, elements of which will now be delivered online over the autumn.

When it comes to supporting members with any kind of union learning, Martin is able to call on his own experience of undertaking adult learning, which helped him make the move from working in the finance team at UNISON Centre to his current role running the ULF project.

It was the experience of completing his Masters in journalism at Birkbeck, University of London (with financial support from the union to help cover the costs of his study) that gave him the confidence to apply for a project worker role in the ULF team back in 2015, he says.

Martin explained:

We’re always talking about the journey of our members and I can really identify with that because I’ve been on that journey myself.”

I got a lot from doing that degree: it really gave me the confidence that I could have a shot at the role as a project worker and it’s informed and developed my career.”

Martin loves seeing the way the project helps UNISON members develop skills they sometimes never imagined they could gain.

Martin said:

It’s incredible to see how some of the learners we’ve supported have, for example, developed their confidence in writing and have moved on to further or higher education – it’s wonderful to see how that learning improves their quality of life.”

This case study first appeared in the Autumn 2020 Learning Rep.