A long and winding road

Adult Learners' Week kicks off tomorrow throughout the UK, its 16th year celebrating the achievements of people who have overcome personal difficulties and gained recognition for their learning, as Neil Munro has been finding out

determination is undoubtedly the key quality of the 15 individuals and groups who have been entered for this year's adult learners' week awards, which will be presented next Thursday during a ceremony at Ingliston, outside Edinburgh.

Charles Batuk, who is taking a businessmanagement access course at Dundee College, is one student who has the qualities it takes. Although born in this country, Charles returned with his family to his native Nigeria only to have his life and that of his five brothers and sisters thrown into turmoil when his father died.

In order to better himself and relieve pressure on his widowed mother, he decided to leave and made for Dundee where he had a friend at university.

His new home, initially, wasn't one - it was a homeless unit run by the Cyrenians. He eventually got a council flat and a cleaning job. That means he works from 4-7 in the morning before college classes. He walks 40 minutes to get to work - "but I take that as exercise", he says.

Stuart Lester, course tutor at the college, says Charles's progress this session has been "superb". He describes him as a student "who has travelled a great distance, academically and personally". Next year, he will start an HNC in accounts and hopes to complete a degree as soon as he can.

That will allow him to come full circle, since he had to abandon studies in Nigeria in accounting because his sister had the opportunity to start a law diploma and the family could not afford to put both through higher education. As Charles put it: "I continued working - and patiently waited for the right moment."

Mr Lester says his student's motivation and resolve to better himself "has been inspirational to all". Not only has he notched up his own personal, social and economic achievements, "he has volunteered in a community food project to help people in need and encourages others in the homeless unit to return to education."

A different, but also challenging, experience lay in wait for grandfather David Boland, when he was made redundant after 15 years as an engineer. An earlier experience working as a landscape gardener led him to make a career change - returning to his roots, as it were. His new employer, a housing association in Edinburgh, encouraged him to take up a modern apprenticeship and get formal qualifications.

David admits he felt he was too old to go back into education in his late 40s and the prospect "scared" him. But he found his fellow students at Oatridge College in West Lothian could not have been more welcoming, treating him to some extent as a "father figure".

He hopes to complete his Scottish Vocational Qualification course next month, and will then aim for an HNC; at his work, he has been promoted to foreman. From an unconfident start, he has reached the point where the college praises his own efforts to help himself and to encourage others.

"I have absolutely no regrets about going back into education," David says.

"It has opened all sorts of doors for me, and I fully intend to take my education as far as I can."

Joyce McCourt's life began to take a turn for the better when she saw a newspaper advert for an adult basic education course to help her lip read.

She has a degenerative hearing disease which leaves her "deafened", as she describes it - neither in the hearing nor in the deaf community.

Somehow, out of a string of family bereavements and illness (including depression), Joyce managed to find the motivation to apply for the course, run by West Lothian Council. It does not just include lip-reading and speech movements, but also encompasses assertiveness and coping strategies.

"I don't know what would have happened to me without the lip-reading groups," Joyce says. The experience has not only given her the necessary techniques but improved her confidence to the point where she supports others in similar situations and has trained as a volunteer with LINK, which helps deafened people.

"A shining example to those she meets" is how her tutors describe her. "She demonstrates clearly how one person can learn and overcome many difficulties through hard work, determination and a strong spirit," they say.

Pamela Ewan is another "winner", who has succeeded in putting a life of drugs, alcohol, crime and depression behind her. It was, ironically, while she was in prison that she began to turn her life around and, after her release, she was put in touch with the "think again" programme at Anniesland College in Glasgow run in conjunction with Apex Scotland, which aims to rehabilitate ex-offenders.

The programme works with "hard to reach" groups and there could have been none harder than Pamela. But she is now the proud possessor of a National Certificate in Social Science which, she says, "allowed me to build my confidence and gave me an insight into the educational opportunities available".

Pamela probably speaks for all the 15 finalists when she adds: "I can't lie and say it has been easy and at times I have struggled, but the support I have received has been phenomenal."

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