Gemma Smith faces the same challenges that all UNISON Learning Representative (ULR) face every day in engaging and supporting learners, finding the right learning opportunities and working in partnership with the employer to make sur everyone has access to further training and development.
However, as the Bridges to Learning ULR for Northumbria NHS Foundation Trust she has her work cut out; the county of Northumberland is the sixth largest and yet has the lowest population density of all English counties. Hence the Trust’s sites range from Berwick-on-Tweed, six miles south of the Scottish Border to Hexham and Haltwhistle to the west and Cramlington in the south of the county and its workforce is dispersed throughout the county. Nevertheless, this has not deterred Gemma in reaching her learners even though most of them are hard-to-reach in more ways than one!
Over her last six years as a UNISON ULR she has helped thousands of learners; some have improved their English and Maths skills, and many have progressed through these learning opportunities to gain NVQs and access continued professional development to improve their self-confidence, competence and job prospects. In recent years, as the Trust has developed its Apprenticeship programme, Gemma has also engaged enthusiastically with this new group and finds them keen to engage in Bridges’ learning programmes. In some cases this is to brush up on their maths but many of them have signed up for workshops on minute-taking and assertiveness and confidence-building, which Gemma arranged specifically to meet their needs, at some of the Trust’s sites as well as the Unison premises in Ashington, in the centre of the county.
Throughout this time the Trust like many NHS Trusts have adopted new ways of working, with nurses, for example, using ipads and other electronic devices for many of their daily tasks, and many of the administrative tasks, from staff information bulletins to pay slips being delivered online. As Jill McLauchlin, the Trust’s IT Training Team Leader said:
I moved here from another Trust a year ago and I was impressed by how forward thinking the management team are both in terms of using digital technologies in their service delivery and meeting their mandatory training commitments, with many staff having achieved their European Computer Driving Licence in recent years. It struck me though that some staff may be being left behind.
We still have some staff who are great with their smartphones but lack confidence in their ICT skills, as they have very little access at home or work and believe it or not, young people like our apprentices who have had very little experience of using a computer mouse.
Gemma has always keenly promoted the Trust’s IT training courses through her roadshows and Bridges’ bulletins but recognised that some of her learners found it difficult to get to the IT training centres due to their location or work and family commitments. Hence, when Jill discussed this potential gap in provision with Gemma, it was just the catalyst she needed:
I love supporting learners but another aspect of the job I really enjoy is doing the research to find new provision, especially if it is free to the learner. So when I found ‘Learn My Way’ I was delighted, as it is it offer a range of courses specifically designed to help learners get started with computers and the internet.
Once they’ve signed up, they get free access and, best of all, it is mobile optimised so they can undertake their learning on home or work computers, smartphones, tablets, whatever they have available. and it has full audio choice for learners who have lower literacy skills. The added bonus for us is that by becoming a ‘Learn My Way’ registered on-line centre, it means I can see who is engaging and progressing and offer support to those who may need more encouragement.
Gemma thinks it has other benefits too, as the offer includes modules that range from using your computer or device; working online; internet skills and online safety to using Office programs but it also includes Numeracy and Literacy Initial assessments modules on Improving your health online:
In this way it’s perfect for many of the learners I focus on, as once they build their self-confidence for learning I’m finding that some of them realise that brushing up their English or Maths skills might be a good idea, or even enjoyable.
This has started off even closer partnership working with the Trust’s IT Training and team as they promote Learn My Way to people they come in touch with it is also being mentioned now in staff appraisals and are planning a public launch across the Trust in the near future. Jill is really delighted:
Gemma’s research has really paid off for us as now we have a seemless progression route in place across the Trust for staff from the first steps provision, which is giving them a really thorough foundation, into the advanced courses we run in house. Our forward-looking strategy means that people are going to have to be technology-savvy to get on in the Trust, so Gemma is really key in this. She has worked really effectively as she has established relationships with the almost all of members of staff we want to upskill. They have such faith in her that very fact that the invitations came from Gemma means that people trust her and, with her ongoing support and encouragement, have the confidence to give it a go.
In turn Gemma thinks the strong partnership now with the Learning and Development team and the IT training team is a model that other Trusts can follow, so much so that its success has prompted the Bridges to Learning project team to make it available to all of its partnership NHS Trusts and local authorities across the North East region.
John Wears, from UNISON Bridges to Learning, has established a ‘Learn my Way centre, which means that John now manages the system and the information tools help to monitor the number of people signing up, completing courses and their achievements and provide this performance data to Gemma and the other project ULRs. In turn this not only leaves Gemma and her colleagues to concentrate on what they do best, supporting and encouraging their learners but also enables Bridges ULRs to see and report on their contribution to their Trust and local authority employer targets and National targets. As John said:
When Gemma introduced me to the system I could see that this wasn’t just going to be great for Northumbria Trust but that it could be a strategic tool for all of our workplaces. Not only this, all Trusts and local authorities are strapped for cash so to have such a great free training resource is helping employers see the real benefits of their partnership with Bridges to Learning.
Anne Hansen, the Bridges to Learning Project Director, is thrilled with the way that this project has taken off:
Online learning is an ideal solution for Northumbria NHS Trust, given its huge geographical area and, like any large employer, its turnover of staff, due to progression, changing job roles and higher level skill needs as well as the way it is helping apprenticeship to up their skills to be an effective member of the workforce of tomorrow. But of course, it is a real boon for all of our workplaces and employers and I’m delighted that Gemma and John have worked as a great team to make it such as a success. And most of all, it is so timely; who would have thought six months ago that being able to upskill while many staff are on lockdown because of COVID-19 and even those on those on the frontline can refresh their skills to help with the daily challenges they face in looking after others.