Ex-prisoner is learner of the year against all odds

15th September 2006 at 01:00
An ex-prisoner with a history of drug problems was this week named as the nation's Champion Learner of the Year 2006.

James Simpson, who left school at 16 with no qualifications, drifted into drug use and was in and out of prison for 15 years.

Now he has turned his life around and has a job helping ex-offenders settle back into the community.

His efforts were recognised at learndirect scotland's annual celebration of learning awards, a "graduation ceremony" which marks the achievements of adults in Scotland who have returned to some form of learning, often in the face of considerable barriers.

Mr Simpson was presented with his award by Allan Wilson, Deputy Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning. He was also named the Jobfinder of the Year.

Mr Wilson emphasised in his speech "the power of learning (which) equips us to do more, achieve more, be more".

The minister also urged his listeners, who included more than 60 learners along with their families and friends, to spread the message.

"It is very important that you pass this experience on. You need to share your experiences with others and encourage them to learn. Learning has helped you - you need to ensure that it helps others too," he said.

Frank Pignatelli, chief executive of learndirect scotland, said the fact that Mr Simpson had turned his life around "offers great encouragement to other people who may feel that learning is not for them".

Mr Simpson started training and working with the Wise Group in Glasgow in a bid to put his past behind him.

He took a vocational qualification in advice and guidance and then successfully applied for a place on a work-based training course with the Scottish Drugs Forum, which prepares former drug users for a career in the care sector.

During the course, Mr Simpson also took a vocational qualification in health and social care, which he says increased his thirst for learning.

He now has a job as a peer support worker with the Wise Group's Routes out of Prison project (RooP), which provides support to people leaving four Scottish prisons.

RooP is based on the principle that one of the most effective ways to prevent re-offending is to promote employment and learning opportunities for ex-prisoners.

It also recognises that former offenders are well placed to help those leaving prison because they have made the transition themselves.

Mr Simpson begins working with individuals before they are released from prison and then helps them to tackle practical and other needs, such as housing and health, when they move back into the community. At least 70 per cent of the staff working on RooP are ex-offenders.

Other winners include:

Young Learner of the Year

Louise Milligan, Dumfries, who overcame serious illnesses with a string of qualifications and is now considering a career in child care.

Older Learner of the Year

Sister Martina Boylan, Wishaw, who has picked up IT skills in order to respond to charity organisations who were regularly approaching her with requests for computer-generated literature on her projects in Uganda and the Congo.

Career Changer of the Year

Joanne Thomson, Dalgety Bay, moved from a 20-year spell in administration and looking after her family into courses in technology, completing her first one-year course in five months.

Personal Achiever of the Year

Alan Nicol, Arbroath, returned to learning and to work, overcoming mental and physical health problems and improving his social skills in the process.

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