However keen rail workers are to return to learning, it can be an uphill battle. Changing shift patterns means that for most, attending a traditional evening class or daytime course at a local college is out of the question. In some cases there are financial barriers to accessing courses that can cost around £1,600. And the thought of college can be intimidating when the last time you saw the inside of a classroom was in your school days many moons ago.
But thanks to partnership working between train companies like Cross Country, London Midland and East Midlands Trains; rail unions ASLEF, RMT and TSSA; Stephenson College based in Coalville Leicestershire; and the unionlearn Midlands team; rail workers in the region can access fully-funded and flexible learning opportunities at work and make sure they don’t get left out of the digital revolution.
The idea of developing an IT apprenticeship for rail workers began at Kings Cross, but quickly travelled up the line to the Midlands. The apprenticeships are aimed at relatively mature workers, already in employment. They offer the chance for groups of workers including ticket office staff and train drivers to increase their IT skills and gain a Level 2 qualification at the end of their 13-month apprenticeship.
After learners have gone through 'pre-course diagnostics' with Stephenson College’s Lyndy Fern, tutors Cheryl Duncan-Ratcliff and Sally Pendleton literally go the extra mile to support their students – travelling by train and booking rooms at train stations across the Midlands. There they run very flexible workshops where students can drop in and discuss any areas they are finding difficult and they can assess and monitor their progress.
Nikki Palmer is a travel advisor with East Midlands Trains and works in the booking office at Beeston train station in Nottinghamshire. Working different shifts – sometimes starting early morning and finishing early afternoon, sometimes starting at lunch time and working into the evening – meant that a course at a regular time each week was not an option.
“I always wanted to learn how to use IT so this was an opportunity I couldn’t miss," she says. “Going back to learning has been fine. I thought I might not be able to do some things. But if I have a break and then go back, once I’ve got it, I’ve got it!”
She added: “Cheryl has been very good at keeping in contact, by phone and email, and providing face-to-face support. And my union learning representative Chris Nutty has encouraged me and made it clear that he’s always available for a chat or if I need any help.”
Karl Maguire has been a train driver for 36 years and currently works for Cross Country from Birmingham. He also works rotating shifts, sometimes starting at 3am, so a college course was never an option for him either. But the IT apprenticeship course set up at Birmingham with the help of ASLEF project worker Julie Rutter was just the ticket.
“The course has been more intense than I expected but I’m managing and have learnt a lot that I am putting into practice outside work, like using power point and mail merge. Our job is also becoming more technical, with more computer-based systems coming into train driving, so it’s been useful for work too,” he says. “Although we are working to a timetable to get through the course, Cheryl is very relaxed and doesn’t put us under undue pressure. You can go at your own pace. And my ULR Michael Clatworthy is always there when I need him.”
For both Nikki and Karl, their IT apprenticeships which began in October 2013 were the first time they have returned to learning since leaving school. But both are doing amazingly well, according to Cheryl.
“Nikki is fantastic. She works independently, offers her help if other students need it and has come into Derby to take assessments and exams. She’s done everything I’ve asked her to and has really come a long way,” says Cheryl. “Karl stood out of his group because he has picked things up so quickly. He makes that extra effort, helps others out if they are struggling and has made so much progress – even though he has a lot of family and other responsibilities outside work. He manages to balance his home life with his work and still find time for learning,” says Cheryl.
The unionlearn Midlands team helps to set up and sustain these kinds of learning opportunities.
"Unionlearn has supported our project since it began in 2005. In fact, it was the unionlearn Midlands team who first brokered union-led learning with the rail sector in the East Midlands," said ASLEF Education Project Worker Chris Nutty. "Since those days, ASLEF and unionlearn's relationship has changed. In the early days they were leading and driving how we engaged with emplyers. Now our relationship is more of a supportive one. The team highlights models of best practice within lifelong learning and helps us to keep up to date with every changing government initiatives so that we can continue to develop these invaluable learning opportunities for our members."