There was a full house at TUC Congress House on Monday as hundreds of trade unionists attended the unionlearn annual conference. The attendees were welcomed by Mary Bousted, Unionlearn board chair and ATL General Secretary, who outlined the day's schedule.
Frances O'Grady gave the first speech of the day. The TUC General Secretary laid out the challenges facing union learning and called the movement to action to support and fight for adult learning and skills.
This led to the call from Peter Horrocks, Vice Chancellor of the Open University, to stem the decline in part-time higher education, which, he pointed out, was the only viable higher level study route for many working people.
There were a number of Quality Award presentations and a video presentation demonstrating the value many employers place on union learning, followed by Professor Mark Stuart from CERIC outlining research that demonstrates the individual and wider economic and social benefits union learning can bring.
Neil Darwin from Cambridge and Peterborough LEP spoke next on the challenges facing the economy and how skills can have an impact, after which there was a Q and A around productivity and union capacity to support this.
After the morning break, attendees watched a video about apprenticeships and heard from apprentices working in a range of sectors. All spoke eloquently about the skills and experience they had gained. They appealed for schools to better advice for young people to show them the full range of options post 16.
Ben Nield, Chief Executive of the Marchmont Observatory, then presented the results of a survey of union learners that showed a wealth of evidence about engagement, retention, achievement, progression and union and community involvement. Perhaps the most poignant response from a learner was that union learning "has helped me build a new me".
Author Fanny Blake then spoke about the transformative power of reading, followed by comedian and author Rhona Cameron, who spoke of her own reading habits, the impact of school on adult life, the importance of the arts and much more, raising laughs, empathy and warm applause on the way.
Tom Wilson, unionlearn director, rounded off the morning, announcing his retirement along with his intention to remain close to the world of learning and skills
The afternoon saw no fewer than 8 workshops, including:
- a ULF project showcase
- a workshop on 'Supporting learners to get on at work',
- a session on the Birkbeck University partnership with Unionlearn,
- a presentation on digital skills support from Digital Friends,
- a session by Show Racism the Red Card on tackling hate racial discrimination,
- a discussion on post-election skills policy,
- a more detailed look at the Marchmont union learner survey and
- a session on Citizen Maths, the free online initiative to improve maths skills.