We often talk about lifelong learning, and the importance of providing opportunities for people to learn throughout their life course. There are plenty of reports which set out the evidence; whether that be the impact of learning on health and wellbeing, or how learning can help people access work and progress in their career. But it is the personal stories of adult learners that really show the value of lifelong learning.
On Tuesday 2 July, the winners of the were announced at a ceremony in London. Organised by Learning and Work Institute, Festival of Learning is the biggest celebration of lifelong learning in England. This year’s winners are not just uplifting and inspiring stories; they perfectly exemplify the transformative impact of learning at every stage through the life course.
Diana Omokore’s story is an inspiring example of how learning can provide opportunity for young people. Diana had a difficult childhood and was taken into care during her teens. Her experience motivated her to be the best that she could be, and she confounded the odds to achieve outstanding exam results and secure a place to study medicine at university. Driven by a passion to help other young people, Diana hopes to go on to be a paediatric surgeon, and she finds time between her studies to volunteer for a children’s charity.
Seong Ngoh Chua
We celebrated the stories of adults who had returned to learning mid-way through their lives. Having limited English, Seong Ngoh Chua felt isolated and unable to help with her daughters’ education. Seong found the courage to enrol on an ESOL course, and this decision has helped transform her life. She is now studying English and maths, volunteering at Adult Education Wolverhampton, and encouraging others to embrace education too.
Vicky Seagars’ story is equally inspiring. She was a stay-at-home mum whose severe anxiety made it difficult for her to leave the house. With the support of the family liaison officer from her child’s school, she enrolled in family learning at Kent Adult Education. Since then, she hasn’t looked back, and she has gone on to secure a place at university to study midwifery.
We also heard from those whose lives have been enriched by learning later in life. Undiagnosed dyslexia had held Stuart Ferris back at school, and he struggled with his literacy. He returned to education aged 50, improving his reading and writing skills and taking the next steps in his career.
Sylvia Rowbottom’s story shows it is never too late to learn. Leaving school at age 16 during the Second World War, Sylvia pledged that whenever she got the chance, she would go back to education. After bringing up her children and a long career, the first thing Sylvia did on retiring was sign up to the Open University. Sylvia went on to graduate with a first class degree in humanities, and she is still learning today at age 91; getting public transport every week to her poetry class.
In addition to celebrating the outstanding achievements and inspiring stories of individuals, Festival of Learning also recognises the tutors and institutions that do so much to open up access to learning, thereby changing people’s lives.
When Fiona Pickett lost her hearing, she thought that she would never teach again. Taking lip-reading classes rekindled her passion for learning and her love of teaching. Fiona went on to study to become an advanced lip-reading tutor. She has now trained more than 70 lipreading tutors, and in doing so, helped transform hundreds of lives.
In their 100th year, City Lit was recognised with the President’s Award. Opening in 1919, one of the first courses taught was sign language to soldiers returning from the First World War, whose hearing had been shattered by shellfire in the trenches of the western front. Over the last century, this pioneering adult education institute has helped more than 1 million Londoners develop their skills and pursue their passions.
Our Employer Award this year went to Keoghs LLC. Whilst too many businesses do not invest enough in skills, Keoghs has demonstrated an outstanding commitment to investing both in their workers and their community. Keoghs offers more than 30 apprenticeships a year, and they give their operational staff the opportunity to take professional law qualifications. Their sector-based work academy has opened up pathways into the profession to disadvantaged young people who may never have considered a career in law.
With a rapidly changing world of work, and with significant inequalities scarring our society, adult learning has never been more important. Yet over the last decade, the number of adults participating has fallen, and it is those adults who could most benefit from taking part in learning who are least likely to do so.
Festival of Learning, and our outstanding award winners, demonstrate the transformative impact of learning throughout the life course. We hope that these stories inspire more adults to give learning a go, and we hope that they can make the case to policymakers of the need to commit to –and invest in – adult learning.
Joe Dromey is deputy director of research and development at Learning and Work Institute