Whenever Susan sees the photograph of herself with her award at the Houses of Parliament on her phone she almost has to pinch herself:
“When I heard that I was getting an Adult Learners award I just thought, ‘I don’t know why I am getting this. I’ve just been given an opportunity and I’ve just grabbed it, that’s all’ ”
But opportunities to show what she could do were scarce during Susan’s childhood. From the age of eleven months until she was thirteen, Susan was regularly placed into care by her mother. Struggling to look after five children after her husband left, Susan’s mother regularly placed the middle three children, including Susan and her twin sister, into care. As a result, Susan spent much of her early years in a variety of care homes in Newcastle. She recalls:
“This meant that I never managed to stay in any school for much longer than one term, as each time my mother put us back in care, we had to go to the home that had vacancies, and that meant going to the nearest school. The worst thing was that when the kids saw you being collected from school by different people every day, and especially if it was one of the nuns, they knew you were in a home. As soon as that happened they mocked you, saying, ‘You see, nobody loves you, not even your mam, that’s why you’re in a home!’ ”
It was only when her mother allowed her and her sister to stay at the family home from the age of thirteen that she settled into one school for more than a year. Then, her reading noticeably improved, as she had always loved stories and English Literature, but she recalls that she was very nervous still about having to read aloud to the rest of the class; a common enough practice in those days. She remembers too that some teachers tried to help her and what a difference that made:
“In my first year there I came second in the Chemistry exams and the whole class was amazed, so the teacher persuaded me to take Chemistry as one of my options for my O levels. However, we got a different teacher the following year and I ended up nearly bottom of the class”
Under pressure at home to leave school as soon as she could, Susan left just before taking her O levels as she was offered a job as a trainee presser in a clothing factory. Here she found her first taste of success, as the staff and managers really took to her and were delighted to see that she was a quick learner. After a few years, the company closed and she moved to another clothing manufacturer; “I really felt like I had gone up in the world as I started out pressing clothes for Marks and Spencer and here I was pressing clothes for Harrods!”
Now married with two small children, Susan decided that she needed to take another part-time job to help out, so that she could to give her family a good start in life. She saw an advert for a cleaning job at the Royal Victoria Infirmary, applied and got the job. Within a few months, she was made redundant from her job in the factory and managed to get a full-time cleaner post in the hospital, which was the gateway for her to begin to show just what she is capable of.
“ I started off with the NVQ Level 2 in Support Services and I managed to get it, and my first certificate! This gave me a real sense of achievement, so when I saw the ‘Return to learn’ Course advertised by the union I thought I might have a go, as it was a way of improving my English and maths and get to know something about IT.
John, the union learning rep, was really important at the beginning. I would never have done it without his encouragement. Return to Learn was like a lightbulb turning on, I really loved it, so I enrolled myself on English Level 1 and followed that up with Level 2. Ever since then I have kept e-mailing him to say, don’t forget about me.”
Buoyed by this success, Susan set about improving her maths skills, and within eight months, with the encouragement from her husband and two teenage children, she achieved both Level 1 and Level 2.
“I remember at school I loved fractions and how proud I felt when I recited my six times table for my teacher, but I think all of the chopping and changing of schools meant that I never really grasped the basics. That’s why I was so delighted when I got my level 2 as it was at the same time as my son passed his GCSE and it really improved my confidence in doing my job too.”
With this new-found confidence, Susan was successful in her application to move out of Domestic Services three years ago to become a Band 2 healthcare assistant. Within months she not only achieved her NVQ Level 2 but also progressed to Level 3, which helped her earn promotion to a Band 3 post.
“If they’d ever told me at school that one day I’d be helping a doctor I would have said you have to be posh and clever, but here I am helping to run clinics, assisting in biopsies, dressing wounds and taking bloods, and loving every minute of it!”
Susan’s thirst for learning hasn’t stopped either; she was one of the first of the healthcare assistants at Newcastle Hospital NHS Foundation Trust to successfully complete the Open University’s K101 Introduction to Health and Social Care course in 2012, which is the first step in a progression path that may lead to a full social work qualification or a pathway to nursing registration.
Susan is thrilled with the way that her family has encouraged her over the last three years with her learning.
“My family have been supportive, reading my essays, correcting my occasional spelling mistake and they don’t mind the fact that, as soon as we’ve cleared away after tea, the computer is on and off I go on my next assignment.
If I read my old essays now I can see how far I have come, and even though I am forty-seven, my daughter who graduated herself two years ago with a first class degree in criminology and social policy, says, ‘Mam, you can go as far as you want – so, for me, the next step, nursing!”