I felt privileged to contribute to On the up: the rewards of adult learning, the NIACE celebration of the first 21 Adult Learners’ Weeks that we published recently.  Often we know what someone intends to do after their learning, and sometimes we are in contact with them over a period of months or even a few years, but the connection usually fades as people move on. This collection of learner stories is special because we got to reconnect with past Adult Learner Awards winners, to ask ‘What happened next’? Hearing directly from people about the difference that learning has made to their lives was both humbling and inspirational.

The stories people told us are powerful testimony to the enduring impact of adult learning, often over many years and through different stages of their lives. Yasmin used learning to travel from a stultifying job in a sweat shop to satisfying work in the voluntary sector. Billy is learning so that he can be, “something other than older”, when he leaves prison. Julie started to teach herself to read and write when she was 32 years old and then went on to study for a degree. And Jessie launched herself into an eclectic mix of learning - from Ancient Greek to Fair Isle Knitting and computers - when she retired and she was still learning when she won her award aged 94.

I was so moved as I read out Donna’s account of being forced to leave school because women in her family ‘were not allowed to have a brain,’ her violent  marriage, suicidal feelings, and then meeting an adult learning tutor whose belief in Donna led her to believe in herself again. She now has a degree and is a teacher, a voluntary worker and a passionate champion of adult learning.

Paul and Frank told us about their experiences, showing how learning helped them to see the world in a different light. Paul, who had his career as a plasterer taken away from him through illness now has higher level qualification and runs his own company committed to training others. Frank told us how he passed by Pentonville prison on the way to the event and looked up at the cells he used to inhabit. That life has gone now and he has education, he has employment prospects, he has family life and the burden of his past life has gone, he ‘feels lighter.’

We heard what winning the award meant.  Winners were delighted and proud. It was often the first time in their lives that their achievements had been recognised and we heard many times that, like Kelly, winning helped them to believe in themselves. It inspired them to continue learning to reach for their dreams and also to encourage others to learn, like Christine who is ‘proud to act as an ambassador for adult learners. This is my ‘Can Do’!’

Adult Learners’ Week shows that adult learning matters and is an opportunity for everyone to have their ‘can do.’  Anyone can nominate an outstanding adult learner for an award - friends, family, workmates, learning champions, union learning representatives, workplace learning advocates, NUS representatives, tutors, support workers…… We call on everyone to find an outstanding learner who they can nominate.  Another ‘can do’ is to encourage others to try adult learning and of course to carry on learning yourself.

Jane Ward is programme manager at NIACE, which encourages all adults to engage in learning

Nominations for the 2013 Adult Learners’ Week Awards close at 5pm on Thursday 13 December 2012.

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