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A sporting champion

Scotland has a new "champion learner". Keith Bence, a 36-year-old from Wishaw, was presented with his award by Learndirect Scotland at a celebration of learning in Edinburgh on Monday.

It was in recognition of the way the former drug and alcohol addict succeeded in overcoming major barriers in his life, and how he capitalised on education as a route out and up. He was also presented with a personal achiever award by Allan Wilson, Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning.

Mr Bence's upbringing had led him into a chaotic early life. "I come from what they call a problem background," he said. "My family, like many others, had problems and, when I was 16, my parents separated and I got a flat of my own. At that point, I hated the world and thought there was hardly any point to anything. There was a lot of anger and rage inside me.

"I got into trouble with the police and started experimenting with drugs and alcohol to the point where it became a problem. But I knew there must be something better out there for me and was determined to do something with my life."

He succeeded in coming off drink and drugs, became a Christian and started a course in sports coaching and development at Motherwell College. There he came across the Mezz, one of 480 Learndirect Scotland learning centres throughout the country.

"I eventually used the skills I gained to go on to university, and I now teach sport to youngsters aged between 14 and 18 who have severe behavioural problems," Mr Bence said. "As well as being able to identify with them, I can encourage them to have the confidence to go on and make something of themselves, just as I was encouraged to do."

Frank Pignatelli, chief executive of Learndirect Scotland, said he was "a wonderful example of how learning can change lives".

More than 70 champion learners attended the event, hosted by television newsreader Shereen Nanjiani. Other winners were:

* Young Learner of the Year

Sarah Bayliss, aged 25 and from Orkney, came through hardships created by her poor reading and "atrocious" maths. "If I went to the shops, I couldn't read the signs and I couldn't read the food labels," she said. "I basically lived on bread and beans because I knew what they looked like. It was embarrassing and you feel under pressure the whole time."

Help came in the shape of Support Training, a Learndirect Scotland learning centre which put together a package to improve her basic skills.

"A lot of people have told me I've changed so much from the person I was before," she says. She now plans to work with young people in Germany for a month as a Prince's Trust volunteer.

* Older Learner of the Year

Bill Irvine, aged 60, from Shawlands in Glasgow, has suffered from mental health problems for most of his adult life and has lived with ME for 14 years.

For the past nine months, he has attended a learning centre in Gorbals library where he completed courses in basic IT, email and web design. "It has given me the confidence to take control of my life again," he commented.

Mr Irvine uses his new skills to help others with mental health problems at a voluntary organisation, Gorbals Link.

* Job Finder of the Year

Grahame Nelson, a 37-year-old from Orkney, started rethinking his life and opted for accountancy - despite not being very good at maths at school.

His breakthrough came when he went to Orkney College to take courses in maths and numeracy. "While I was being taught, it was as if a light had been switched on in my head," he said. He is now doing an accountancy course and is working through the Advanced level of the European Computer Driving Licence.

* Career Changer of the Year

Sammy Vance, who is aged 48 and has learning difficulties, has moved from factory worker making shovels to web designer.

At his father's behest, he began a computer course at his local learning centre for just one hour a week. "My tutor said I was capable of so much more," Mr Vance says. "He put me on to a more difficult course and soon I was doing four days a week. He had faith in me and that was a real boost to my confidence."

He was then referred on to Telford Learning, the community arm of Edinburgh's Telford College, where he gained a Higher National Diploma in computing and is about to complete the advanced European Computer Driving Licence.

Now a technology assistant at Ithos, a company specialising in web design, e-commerce and computer training, he is in little doubt about the value of learning.

"My job makes me happy. It's a lot better than working in a shovel factory," he says.

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