“One thing we’ve noticed, especially during the pandemic, is how central learning is to wellbeing.” UNISON Cymru Wales wins Inspire! Award for its support to Wales’ public sector workforce

UNISON Cymru Wales has won a major award in recognition of its dedication to supporting key public sector workers throughout the pandemic through its UNISON Wales Union Learning Fund (WULF) project.

The UNISON WULF Project aims to increase the skills, confidence, wellbeing, and employability of the public service workforce across Wales.

During the pandemic, the UNISON WULF Project adapted its services to deal with increased pressures being put on people working in the public sector. The project staff worked hard to make sure the service could be delivered entirely virtually, and to a much wider remit of people.

Despite these challenges, it was able to support over 2,500 front-line NHS, social care, school support staff, Police Community Support Officers and other key workers from all parts of Wales through a wide range of learning opportunities such as webinars, e-learning and grants.

In recognition of this remarkable achievement, the UNISON WULF Project was awarded the ‘Skills at Work’ Inspire! Award for its commitment to supporting the self-development of Wales public sector staff at the time they needed it most.

The UNISON WULF Project was one of 12 winners to be recognised at the 2021 Inspire! Awards. Co-ordinated by the Learning and Work Institute with support from the Welsh Government and the European Social Fund, the Inspire! Awards recognised those who have demonstrated a commitment to lifelong learning, building confidence and developing vibrant and successful communities.

The Inspire! Awards were part of Adult Learners’ Week, which took place this year from 20-26 September offering taster sessions and live online sessions to inspire people to keep learning throughout their lives.

Richard Speight, Area Learning & Development Organiser at UNISON Cymru Wales, said: “We try to focus on lower-paid public service workers such as teaching assistants and care workers, who often don’t have the training and educational opportunities offered to higher paid colleagues.”

“Before the pandemic, our main focus was more about providing our learners with essential skills like literacy. Now, our remit has expanded to be far wider and more employment specific.”

When COVID hit, the first task was to ensure all social care workers in Wales had free access to coronavirus-specific infection control training, quickly rolling out a free e-learning course to over 800 people.

Richard continued: “We saw hugely increased demand for certain public sector services, most notably social care. One of our biggest priorities was providing people joining this workforce with the tools they needed to get up to speed and begin their new chapter.”

This offer, delivered through eLearningForYou, allowed care workers to join the sector and keep their professional development up-to-date during the crisis.

The pandemic made face to face sessions impossible and the move to virtual learning was challenging at first.

Richard said: “For many of our tutors, learning how to deliver engaging webinars was really difficult. Thankfully, we had the in-house knowledge to equip our tutors with the expertise to make this transition from classroom to webinar a smooth one.”

Since March 2020, the UNISON WULF Project has delivered over 150 expert-led webinars. These have included ‘Resilience’ and ‘Secondary & Vicarious Trauma’ courses for Denbighshire Council’s rapid COVID-19 redeployment pool, ‘Aspiring Manager’ courses for Ceredigion care workers and British Sign Language courses for NHS staff.

Richard continued: “Another moment I look back on with the pride was our special ‘Supporting Learning Through Creativity’ event for school staff, which included a performance from the poet John Agard.

“After such a tough year, we wanted to give school support staff a big morale boost. It was a thoroughly entertaining morning. We also set up a programme for our teaching staff after the event so they could put everything they’d learnt into practice.

“None of this success would have been possible without the collaboration between our team, trade unions, employers and the individual themselves.

“We have strong relationships with trade unions and public sector employers who encourage workers to attend these sessions. It shows workers their development is valued so they’re given the confidence and freedom to upgrade their skill-set.”

“Partnerships have been central to this success, too. We’ve been able to reach so many learners across Wales by teaming up with over 17 public sector employers including Education Workforce Council (EWC) and Social Care Wales.

“These partnerships have allowed workforces, not only access this training, but to participate in the design of programmes, promote webinars, and provide paid release for their staff to attend.

“One thing we’ve noticed, especially during the pandemic, is how central learning is to mental health and wellbeing. It doesn’t always have to be learning something related to your job role or that you need to use every day – it’s about giving people a boost and showing that they’re valued by both their employer and trade union.

“Looking ahead to the future, our biggest priorities are helping workers, trade unions and employers to emerge safely from Covid-19 restrictions including preparing our learners to return to the classroom, coping with the changing world of work, and participating in transition to zero carbon Wales.”

Jeremy Miles, Minister for Education and Welsh Language, said: “Congratulations to all the winners and nominees in this year’s Inspire! Awards. There’s some really powerful stories behind this year’s participants, with some great examples of people overcoming personal challenges in their commitment to learning, and it’s important to celebrate the achievements of everyone who took part. Well done everyone!”

David Hagendyk, Director for Wales at Learning and Work Institute said: “What better way to realise the value of adult learning than to hear the uplifting stories of our Inspire! Award winners. Each and every one of our winners demonstrates the benefits lifelong learning can bring – from improving mental wellbeing, to gaining the skills to land a new job.”

“We hope their incredible stories will inspire people across Wales to take that first step back into education. Whatever your motivation for gaining new skills, there’s never been a better time to change your story.”

For personalised advice on your own learning options and support available, get in touch with Working Wales on 0800 028 4844 or search www.workingwales.gov.wales.