When Covid hit, and people had to work from home, it appeared that lifelong learning opportunities and training for work would have to stop. There were no classrooms available, lecturers and tutors had to stay at home.
As a solution lots of colleges, universities and education providers started putting courses online; it seemed that a new webinar or Zoom learning course was advertised every few minutes. Within days there was so much available that it could be confusing for learners.
Anne Hansen, Director of the UNISON Bridges to Learning partnership saw the need for more coherence. If there was a single “one stop shop” then learners would know exactly where to go and project workers, trying to support learners remotely, would be able to promote it and ensure that the ULR project workers could continue to do what they do best; to advise and support people to get in to and progress through learning. Anne explained:
‘The people who are targeted by UNISON Bridges to Learning are in the main people who have not taken part in much learning and training since leaving school, or people who think it is not for them because they are too old, too young, the wrong gender or ethnicity or are not familiar with IT systems and equipment. They know though that they need to improve their skills or qualifications and that’s why they rely so much on ULR support.’
The concept was to create an online learning portal on the Bridges to Learning website. This “hub” would bring together access to taught courses delivered online via Zoom, and also access to the qualification bearing courses that Bridges to Learning had delivered so successfully over its twelve years of operation.
Bridges to Learning already had a well-designed and welcoming website, which learners were familiar with using, as many booked onto CPD courses through it. The company who created the website were brought on board to build the online hub, and that’s when things got moving.
Within 4 weeks of lockdown the online learning hub was available on the existing website and has been promoted widely since by union learning reps to their members, by e-flyers from the Bridges to Learning team and by education providers and other stakeholders.
The focus was to bring together valuable courses, ones that will make a difference to learners and meet their own aspirations. For example, it was difficult to find online English and Maths courses which led to a qualification. This was eventually found at ‘Gateshead learningSkills’, the adult education provision at Gateshead Council. It was also important that learners could continue to access free VQ2 courses, which Bridges to Learning had offered, pre-lockdown, in workplaces with face-to-face induction sessions. Both providers, Skills Network and Learning Curve, agreed to move their inductions online and were keen to be part of the online hub.
The hub acts as an ‘honest broker’, offering learners access to online and distance learning opportunities, from subjects including English and Maths to workshops and over forty VQ programmes on work related topics, such as ‘Understanding nutrition and health’ and ‘Principles of leadership and management techniques, as well as other opportunities from a growing range of providers. It also offers a range of real-time ‘classroom’ workshops, including how to use Zoom, a popular topic amongst learners who have had little access to digital ICT in the past. A learner simply visits the website, registers an interest and the hub does all the rest.
Hazel, an NHS Trust ULR recalls:
‘I was really worried when lockdown was first announced as I thought it meant that I wouldn’t be able to do my job, getting out to the sites to support learners and encourage others to get involved but in fact I think that the Hub has turned Bridges to Learning from a great into an outstanding project.’
Now I can handhold learners, by phone, text or e-mail, from the time they
express an interest to when they complete something and I’m there to advise
them about next steps. So instead of thinking my role would be redundant it’s hard to think of a time when I’ve been busier.”
Like Hazel, Joe, who works in another North East Trust, is finding that this new way of working is attracting people from across all roles in the Trust:
‘Even though our main focus is on helping people in lower paid roles, we also help lots of nurses and other professionally qualified staff. The hub is attracting more and more people to online learning who cannot attend regular taught classes. Just in the last couple of weeks I’ve helped a clinical educator find maths courses, as technological advances are making ever-increasing demands on her team, and a medical secretary who is only one of several members of staff wanting to get into nursing. Given the shortage of qualified nurses it’s great that we’re helping to meet our own skills shortages within the Trust!’
The role of ULRs like Hazel and Joe is a fundamental part of the success of the Bridges to Learning Hub. The hub launched in March 2020 and immediately attracted 300 learners. That has grown to over 2500 learners in five months. Without their support to get the message out across their workplaces, this would never have happened.
Kath Dawson, of unionlearn, the TUC’s learning organisation, which manages union learning projects, explains:
‘We know from all unionlearn-funded projects that learners put a lot of trust in the advice, guidance and support they get from a ULR and I think this is what has made a real difference to the success of the Bridges to Learning online learning hub.
All of the evidence shows that online learning appeals most to folk with good digital skills and confidence in learning but this hub is really bucking the trend. People are getting on with it in their own time, lengthening their day while working at home, or when there’s nothing on the telly and getting both tutor and ULR support just when they need it.’
In turn, the hub is helping providers to reach learners in what would otherwise be a very difficult time; here’s a few examples below:
‘Even though we are known as a community learning provider, the WEA has invested a lot of effort in gearing up for online provision in recent years, in the technology, in training over two thousand tutors and in developing materials.
The Bridges to Learning hub has been a perfect test-bed for us, so much so that we’re now developing online courses in English and maths, something we have a strong track record in delivering for the healthcare sector.’
Anne Staines, WEA North East Region.
‘The Skills Network have been offering fully-funded NVQs for over ten years, using the Adult Learning Budget. Even though over 33,000 learners have benefitted in the last year we still need to raise our profile, as we want to make sure the funding reaches the people it is intended for. We are so delighted with the numbers of referrals and the completion rates we’re getting now from Bridges to Learning that we want to discuss joint branding the marketing of our courses in the future.’
Darren Clarke, Skills Network.
Similarly, Sarah Richardson, Gateshead Council’s Skills for Life Curriculum Lead is really pleased to be involved:
Working with Bridges to Learning has helped us in developing our service and extending our reach. In the past we mainly provided courses, a lot of them in English and maths, to Council staff, our local NHS Trust and many members of the community through face-to-face delivery across Gateshead.
The timing was great for us as we had already began re-writing our teaching material and using on-line tools when the Hub was established. Now we’re using Google Classroom and reaching more learners; we’ve even got a ‘classroom’ cohort of staff from a range of NHS Trusts so we can deliver work-related English and maths, and our tutors love it!’
Importantly too, the Hub continues to provide progression routes to higher education, something that has always been a key aim for Bridges to Learning:
‘The Open University has been a key partner in Bridges from the start. We’ve gone on in recent years to provide work-related lunch and learn but the Bridges to Learning online hub is now providing something that we really need in the North East.
Every apprentice, nurse associate and trainee nurse on OU programmes needs good quality English and maths support, and ongoing professional development thereafter. So the take up though the hub is great, working together this closely is building real workforce capacity for the sector across our region.’
Christine Lockey, Staff Tutor, Faculty of Wellbeing, Education and Language Studies, Open University.
Julie is one of thousands of people who are currently learning through the Hub. She hopes to take her Maths Level 2 exam by the end of November; her learning journey shows the impact of Bridges to Learning, the online hub and the partnership with her ULR and her employer:
‘I’ve been a healthcare assistant for thirty years since I was eighteen andlove my job just as much as the day I started. I have a lovely family life, with two grandchildren, so when my boss asked me a year or two ago about going on to do nurse training I refused.
Recently though, as she’s still encouraging me to better myself, I have started to think about doing nurse associate training as I think that would suit me better, because it’s the patient contact that makes me want to go to work every day. I quickly realised though that it might be a tall order for me. I did get my NVQ Level 3 but that’s twelve years ago. I am still shy until I get to know people, so the thought of a classroom terrifies me and the thought of punctuation and most of all maths, terrifies me even more and I’m going to have to improve both of them if I am going to get anywhere.
However, when I saw the e-mail about the Bridges to Learning online hub, I rang Gemma, my local ULR, and her encouragement got me underway. I decided that, rather than tell my boss straightaway, I’d do the maths ‘for me’, then my English and see how it goes.
I am enrolled with Gateshead Council and have loved every minute of it. The tutors are great, helping me all of the time and though I know I could ask questions if I was in a classroom, this way I can go at my own pace.
In fact, a classroom course would have meant me doing a fifty-mile round trip every week; can you imagine doing that on winter nights on icy roads in Northumberland, never mind the cost of the petrol?
I’ve just sat my mock English and passed my Level 1 maths exam last week in the Council’s learning centre, which I’m really thrilled about. I wasn’t keen on driving into the city centre so my daughter’s drove me over so that I wasn’t too nervous on the day. Having said that, I was nervous enough but my confidence has improved a lot because of this and that’s really important, as there’s 100 applicants for 20 places on the Trust’s nurse associate programme. Despite that, believe it or not I am thinking of giving it a go once I get my Level 2s, but don’t tell my boss just yet!’
Julie is a great example of the huge amounts of untapped talent in the health and social care sector and illustrates the way that the hub is providing opportunities and progression routes through learning, transforming lives and, at the same time, building much needed skills capacity for the North East region.