Celebrating learning: winning writers and hope for the future

Delegates gathered to discuss the future of learning at a fringe meeting of UNISON’s national delegate conference in Brighton last week. And the winning entry of our first ever writing competition was revealed.

Judges Genevieve Clarke (The Reading Agency), Andrew Jennison (UNISON learning representative, De Montfort University), Kathleen Jowitt (UNISON staff member and award-winning author) and Kirsi Kekki (Unionlearn) said that they were really surprised and pleased by the wide range of entries. Entrants took the prompt and ran with it, sending in personal stories, poems, stories set in the past and in the future. Entries ranged from the whimsical to the satirical to the deadly serious. And all the judges agreed that reading them was a real treat.

Deciding on the final six was a difficult process. There were about a dozen entries of very high quality. All the judges had their own favourites, and they didn’t always match the other judges’. But the winning entry is the one that appeared on all four judges’ personal shortlists:

Conservative Party Conference 2050, by James Gore from West Berkshire branch, a satirical speech that succeeded in being simultaneously humorous and inspiring. Read out by UNISON national learning and workforce development officer Clair Hawkins, it roused the audience to laughter and to applause.

The remaining shortlisted entries were:

Petrichor, by Rachael Bate from Chester branch, a charming story told from an unusual point of view: this was the only entry with a non-human narrator. And that gave Rachael the freedom to imagine the whole of life as a learning experience. It also had a fabulous selection of puns!

A Different Class by Kenneth Cowell from Newcastle branch was one of several rather dystopian visions of what learning might look like in the future. What made this one stand out was the sheer chilling plausibility of it.

A Teacher Prepares by Colin Gardiner from Islington Local Government branch was a personal account, told with real compassion and humanity.

Another personal account, but this time coming from the other side, was Learning – a love story by John Ingleson from Leeds Teaching Hospitals branch. It was funny and tender, and a brilliant illustration of all sorts of different learning.

The one poem on the shortlist is There, Inside Of Me by Joanna Ryan from Wiltshire and Avon Health branch. It tells a story that we hear a lot at UNISON Learning and Organising Services – of someone whose experience at school was limiting and off-putting, whose abilities were dismissed, but who has returned to learning later in life. And it tells it with energy, with anger, but also with open-mindedness and generosity.


UNISON assistant general secretary Roger McKenzie then outlined the challenges facing members in the workplace today, with a specific focus on what this means for union learning. Together with Teresa Donegan, head of UNISON learning and organising services, and Chris Tansley, chair of UNISON’s development and organisation committee, he led a discussion on how the union’s learning offer can and needs to adapt for the future. Contributions included:

  • the need to make UNISON’s learning work more visible, and resources for learning reps easier to find
  • the devastation caused by funding cuts to the further education sector
  • the importance both of continuing face-to-face provision of courses and providing online and blended options for those for whom the traditional model is unsuitable
  • ‘learning how to learn’ – encouraging learners to become self-sufficient
  • success stories from branches that have worked together to run learning events