The group of women in the corner of the hotel coffee shop at one of their regular Saturday morning get-togethers looked like any group of friends who’ve known each other for years.
They looked relaxed and happy, laughing at each other jokes, until they had to get the order together; a combination of lattés, americanos, coffee with milk and without milk, a fruit tea and one expresso, which needed some concentration and brought the laughing to a momentary stop, but not for long.
They’re soon chatting and laughing again, but it’s the way they’re so candid, attentive and supportive of each other and happy to talk as a group rather than break into several conversations that makes them unlike the other tables in the coffee shop.
But what makes them so different? How did this group of six friends of such different ages come to know each other? The answer is through work, and yet they all work in a separate workplaces or departments and have different jobs, from school teaching assistants to hospital catering assistants to a part-time college tutor, a phlebotomist and a radiography clinical assistant. The answer is they came together as part of a UNISON Return to Learn programme, in 2016 all with the same aim; to make up for lost time.
Though they all had different experiences and levels of success at school or college but the thing they have in common is that they all stepped off their career paths to bring up families and some had to do this on their own. Over coffee, they began to remember their experiences at school and their learning journeys:
“The move from a small primary school to grammar school really took me by surprise and I struggled. I did well enough though to pass my exams and got a nursing cadetship but I had to give that up before I qualified when I got married, so that’s how I ended up as an auxiliary nurse.”
Nevertheless, Pat loved her work in nursing and now loves her second career as a ward clerk at South Tyneside District Hospital, but felt that she wanted to get back into learning:
“The Return to Learn course was great, meeting people from different backgrounds and Jane made us feel so relaxed that we quickly became comfortable to ask questions, without worrying about appearing daft. Since then I’ve gone on to pass my Levels 2s in Principles of End of Life Care and in Business Admin, much to the surprise of my family.
It was great though, when one of my sons said’ What do you want to be doing stuff like that for at your age?’ to hear myself say, I’m doing it for me!’
Julie, who was sat next to Pat, laughed at this point and said:
“it’s funny you say that because, when I first saw the UNISON leaflet, I thought;’ I might have a go at that, it can’t do any harm and now Hazel e-mails me every time there’s something coming up that she knows will interest me. The thing about Return to Learn is everybody came back week after week, I’ve never known a course like it.
So here I am, I’m still young enough to change direction and so I’ve taken over my daughter’s bedroom while she’s away at university. The rest of the family always know where I am when I disappear while they’re watching TV. They even occasionally come up to see what I’m up to now and they’re really proud of me.”
Julie’s passion for working with children started at school, when she wanted to train as a nursery nurse. After having four children herself she did Early Years training and worked for a childcare agency and Surestart before taking her current job as a teaching assistant in a primary school:
“It’s funny because it makes you feel selfish doing things for yourself but so long as they’re free I’ll keep going.”
Her courses in disability awareness, mental health and self-harming have given Julie some very helpful knowledge that helps almost every day in her job, much of which is spent providing one-to-one support for young children with autism and other learning difficulties.
A few steps ahead of Julie, Sharon has already started to change direction:
“I work as a paid counsellor in a Woman’s Crisis Centre now one day a week and Hazel is a big part of my story too.”
Sharon had harboured ambitions to study psychology for years but bringing up a family came first. On moving north with her family in 2003 she had researched a course at Sunderland University but soon after, she found herself as the main breadwinner when her husband disappeared, leaving her with no choice but to get a job.
She took a job as a part-time food services assistant at the District Hospital and though it was a far cry from what she had hoped to be able to do it, she quite enjoyed it and helped bring up her family, aged ten to seventeen, until she found herself having some personal difficulties with another member of staff:
“I was so desperate that I went to see HR. My self-esteem was at an all-time low and, having heard about my situation, the first thing they did was to ask Hazel to join us. She immediately helped me to feel better about myself as she used her counselling skills to help me focus on what I can do and how Bridges to Learning can help; that made me feel so much more positive.”
Like her friends around the coffee table, Sharon went on to follow a whole raft of courses, from the Return to Learn programme to a number of short workshops, such as the Open University’s End of Life’s workshop but with Hazel’s help began to focus on counselling as her long-term goal:
“Though I had to work through some of my own history I’m now well on the way through my three-year counselling diploma course, and this has not just given me skills, and now paid work and a path out of food services one day but it is giving me my self-worth back. I can’t tell you how much it means when your daughter says ‘Mum you’re such an inspiration’.”
Brenda’s story echoed Sharon’s closely. Left as a single parent shortly having moved to the north she found too that she faced difficulties at work, following a restructuring which downgraded her post as a radiography clinical assistant but more importantly had a detrimental effect on her self-esteem:
“Unlike some of the other girls, I had already got back in learning when we moved up here because I’d found a short few courses in things like word processing and computing skills. The Level 2 in Health and Social care with South Tyneside though got me into auxiliary nursing and then into the occupational therapy department at the hospital and that then led me into my post in radiography.”
Her experiences of the restructuring though took their toll and Brenda felt almost that she needed to start again to build her confidence:
“The Bridges e-mail came just at the right time and the support I got from these girls made all of the difference. I was always the last to arrive, at the last minute because of my work hours but the great thing is, even though I’m still in the same job I feel that I’m now ready for something else, which is great.”
Throughout their discussion Jane has listened intently. A UNISON part-time tutor and higher level teaching assistant herself, she is clearly part of the group and it’s quite rare for a teacher to be able to fit comfortably into a group of their students, particularly someone who spends her days with primary children.
That may be due to a number of factors, not least that she took her first steps in her teaching assistant career herself after a Return to Learn course a few years before but also due to the fact that she’s never stopped egging them on. Most importantly though its because she never let’s any of them forget how far they’ve come, as illustrated when Pat described herself as ‘just a ward clerk’ and was mildly goaded by Jane;
“You’re not ‘just’ anything, you’ve got so much to be proud of!”
It’s no wonder that they’ve continued to meet years after their shared UNISON Return to Learn course, and that Hazel, the Bridges Learning rep joins them as often as she can, as they have so much in common; they all gave up their careers and learning to put their families first; they all lacked confidence in their abilities and some regretted having left it so long to do something for themselves.
They all share even more though; they are all a great example of the latent and often untapped talent in workforces and they’ve never stopped learning. If anything the mutual support is giving them all the determination to carry on their own learning paths and achieving more than they would ever have dreamt of, and the great thing is that this is making those very family members whose needs they put first so many years ago now so proud of them!