Peer learning

John O’Farrell explains how union learning builds up skills in the workplace.

The single fact of the Northern Ireland economy which contradicts ministerial wishes for a hi-tech future is that the proportion of working-age people without any educational qualifications is much higher than in any of the regions of Great Britain.

This fact also confounds those who defend the present system of formal education, in particular academic selection at ten years old. Twenty-one per cent of working age people in Northern Ireland are without any qualifications, compared with 15 per cent in Wales, 12 per cent in London and 8 per cent in South West England. The situation gets worse with age groups, and is worse for men.

For those in work, as in much of their lives, those with the least receive less. According to the Labour Force Survey, over 30 per cent workers with degrees are likely to receive job-related training, while only 8 per cent of the unqualified get workplace training. By occupation, one- third of professionals have their skills updated and upgraded compared with one-tenth of plant and machine operatives.

An educated workforce is not an option anymore – it is a social and economic necessity. Those in work for some time have qualifications that carry no more weight. There are people who are in need of an entirely new set of skills.

Clearly, there is work to do, and fortunately this has been recognised by the Government. The UK Government has a series of training initiatives aimed at specific groups, such as older workers whose skills are becoming outdated by technology or young people not in education, employment or training (the NEETs).

Under devolution, this remit falls under the Department for Employment and Learning. Its Minister, Sir Reg Empey, has demonstrated, throughout his term in office, his strong commitment to developing the skills base of our workforce, in line with the stated objective of the Executive’s Programme for Government: “A successful economy which is characterised by high productivity, a highly skilled and flexible workforce and employment growth.”

DEL administers a programme of great interest to the trade unions. UnionLearn helps unions spread the lifelong learning message to even more members. This builds on a tradition which dates back to the origins of the movement. When adult literacy levels were very low, one literate labourer would read aloud while the others divided his or her share of the work.

This was built upon by movements such as Workers’ Educational Association and Ruskin College, Oxford. Historically, these organisations were building upon the thirst for knowledge exhibited by working people.

Today union learning reps and other workplace educators build on this proud inheritance. Nine trade unions are operating the programme in Northern Ireland workplaces across all sectors, with a particular emphasis on essential skills in maths, English and IT. As training is organised through a fellow worker, this reduces some of the barriers of mistrust or embarrassment which impedes many unqualified workers from returning to education.

Every learner has their own motivation. For many it is to improve their career prospects, for others, it is the desire to be able to help their child with their schoolwork. For almost all, it boosts their

self-esteem and confidence, but the picture is bigger than that.

This needs to be part of an investment strategy for Northern Ireland. That means widening the definition of economic investment and business development to include the skills of the workforce. This linkage between on-site training and education and public funding for foreign and local investors may make far away locations less attractive.

Investment in skills makes companies more likely to stay here, and in cases of collapse or flight abroad, will help those workers find new jobs. Skilled workers are more productive and more content. They will be loyal to a company which is loyal to them, which recognises their intelligence and the worth of their craft.

When Lord Leitch unveiled his report into skills in the UK, a BBC reporter summarised his message into three words: “It’s skills, stupid.” Later this month, the annual ICTU Union Learning Conference will focus on the achievements and needs of union learning reps. These peer educators deserve to be celebrated.

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