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Incredible journeys

A mother who spent 25 years looking after her autistic son before graduating with honours, and a 16-year-old father who became a junior chef of the year are just two of the many winners in this year's Scottish Qualifications Authority awards

BELINDA WILLIS, by her own admission, was lacking in self-confidence and had low self-esteem. James Watt College changed all that. Last week, Belinda was named FE college candidate of the year in the annual Scottish Qualifications Authority awards.

It has been a remarkable journey. Her full-time job for 25 years was caring for her autistic son. Eventually, he had to go into residential care and that was her impetus to find a new job.

Her first port of call was to James Watt College where she took a part-time computing course. Much to her surprise, she found learning "informal and fun", and she made steady progress.

Gaining in confidence, her next stop was a full-time National Certificate course in office administration, followed by an HN Certificate. An HN Diploma in communications followed, as did a place at Paisley University, from where she graduated with honours this year. She is now contemplating a career in teaching.

With her background and experience, Belinda gravitated naturally to putting her new skills to use and became a founding member of Buddies, a club for adults with learning difficulties.

The two runners-up as college candidates of the year were Denise Reid, Cumbernauld College, and Raymond Bullon, Jewel and Esk Valley College.

Denise confronted a learning problem by accident, while she struggled to help her son with his homework. She did not think she had poor literacy skills but decided to enrol in an adult literacy class - where she discovered she was dyslexic. With support and despite being mother to four children, she went on to achieve Intermediate 1 qualifications in IT, numeracy and literacy. Three Highers followed, which helped her land a place at Strathclyde University where she is now in the first year of a community education course.

Raymond Bullon was medically retired from the army after becoming ill with ME, and is now confined to a wheelchair. Deciding eventually that education was his passport, he joined Jewel and Esk Valley College, which provided him with a laptop and dictaphone. He completed his course and then gained a degree in community education. He is in the final year of an SQA professional development award in adult literacies learning. He will be heading for the Dominican Republic to set up a street school to help children learn English.

In another award category, "candidate of the year working with a training provider or employer", Graeme Malone, a young chef at Crieff Hydro, walked off with the top prize.

Graeme is described as having had "a very unsettled upbringing" in Glasgow, which saw him leaving school at 16 with no qualifications and becoming a father at the same time. Through an uncle, he got a job as a porter at the Crieff hotel.

Having been given his opportunity, he went on to become a junior chef and then a qualified commis chef - before winning junior chef of the year at the hydro.

His unpromising start was compounded when his father died and he had to take on financial responsibility for his younger brother as well as his daughter - while working a 60-hour week and continuing his commitment to learning, acting as mentor to other candidates for Scottish Vocational Qualifications.

The two others in this category rewarded for their training skills were Catherine Irvine, described as "a beacon for personal and professional development" in her job at the St Margaret of Scotland hospice for the terminally ill; and Calum Chisholm, who works on Glasgow City Council's vocational programme.

The college of the year award went to Glasgow College of Nautical Studies.

The silver and bronze awards to colleges went, respectively, to Motherwell and Dundee - the former for its chef apprenticeship programme and the latter for pioneering work in delivering SQA awards in care.

Although the lifelong learning award went to a secondary school, Breadalbane Academy, James Watt College got the silver accolade for promoting qualifications through the Inverclyde library service while Forth Valley College got bronze for developing skills through the construction industry and regenerating the Raploch area of Stirling.

The top award for training provideremployer of the year went to Stagecoach for the way it has brought consistency to staff training. The bus company has awarded 6,000 Scottish and National Vocational Qualifications to its staff over the past five years.

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