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Lifelong learner Hilary prepares for graduation

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Vocational education and training has had a long history in the education system in Northern Ireland, helping individuals to gain the skills and knowledge needed for a successful career.

The Festival of Learning, previously known as Adult Learners Week, takes place from 18-21 June and is a celebration of lifelong learning which aims to show that you’re never too old to learn something new or go back to education.

Local adults have shared their stories of how part-time vocational education at South Eastern Regional College (SERC) has helped them get promoted, retrain in a new career, and get back into education to further their ambitions.

For anyone considering returning to education, 47-year-old mother of two Hilary McIlroy from Bangor is a great inspiration. Hilary completed the level 5 children’s care learning and development leadership and management qualification alongside raising her two children aged 16 and 19 and holding down her demanding job as a Playgroup assistant at Early Days Playgroup.

Hilary has proved that with hard work and commitment you can fulfil your dreams. Since completing the course Hilary has been promoted to the Leader in Early Days, a position that she was offered previously but didn’t feel equipped to undertake until she gained the knowledge required through doing her level 5.

Having been out of education for nearly 10 years, Hilary was apprehensive about returning to college, but she wasn’t going to let nerves get the better of her. She said: “As soon as I met my tutors I was totally at ease, they were fantastic and really helped me settle back into the classroom environment. I was petrified about coming back to education, but everyone in the class helped each other. I can’t stress enough how fantastic this course has been.

“The tutors go above and beyond to ensure that every student receives the help and support that they need. I never thought that I would be sorry to be finishing my qualification, but I will miss my Thursday nights at SERC and the camaraderie and up to date knowledge gained every week.

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“The funding options available for the higher-level apprenticeship through the Department for the Economy also meant that I could access this type of qualification by making it more affordable for me and my employer who, as a registered charity, would have struggled to find the funds for the qualification. I would recommend studying a part-time course to anyone thinking of returning to education.”

Hilary’s advice to others considering returning to part-time education is to ‘just go for it’.

Tutor Lizzie Buick said: “We understand that returning to education is a daunting prospect for many and that is why we aim to make the learning experience a positive one. We have many mature students who are returning for a variety of reasons from retraining or coming back to get the qualifications they didn’t get when they were younger. And that is the beauty of having your local college on your doorstep.”

Hilary started the course in November 2016 and is now looking forward to her graduation ceremony at the Belfast Waterfront Hall on Friday 7 September where she will celebrate her hard work and academic achievements with her friends, family and classmates.

SERC principal and chief executive Ken Webb said “Adult Learners Week is the perfect way to celebrate the many paths to success open to learners of all ages, and we hope it will inspire others to enrol onto a vocational course either for a hobby, career change or to up-skill. Vocational education and training plays a vital role in preparing people for the work environment through hands-on learning, offering local employers with appropriately skilled and trained people.”

Applications are now open for part-time courses starting in September. 

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