John O’Farrell of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions outlines how the Union Learning Fund is helping to upskill members with life transforming outcomes.
When Gareth Moore was in Primary 6, an age when most children are being prepped for that stress test, the 11-plus, his heart stopped. Literally, and for several times. A series of heart attacks at that extraordinarily young age meant that the system could not facilitate him as a normal school student.
“I was restricted to a tutor at home, two hours a day, two days per week, for nearly a year and it meant when I returned to school I was well behind in all subjects and was not able to undertake the 11-plus. This impacted my learning as I moved into secondary school and initially I felt ‘dumb’ at school because everyone seemed to be ahead of me.
“I worked very hard in my first three years at secondary school, trying to make up for my poor starting position. Despite moving from the lowest classes in my first year to the highest in most subjects, my school still had concerns over my ability to complete GCSEs and went as far as to block me from even sitting GSCE English.
“That was devastating to me, as I was well aware that a C in GSCE maths, English and science was the minimum grade required to progress to further education or to secure employment.”
While the coronary condition afflicting Gareth was very unusual, the outcome of his formal education was not. Each year, about one in four of school leavers enter the jobs market without that C grade in maths, English or a science. It should be noted that there is an uneven distribution of ‘success’ and ‘failure’, with the ratio of Kipling’s ‘two imposters’ varying wildly from middle class girls to working class boys.
As such, Gareth was stratified by those sarcastic initials, a NEET. “I then took matters into my own hands and while completing the rest of my GSCEs, I also paid for a night class set up for adult learners returning to education to gain their GSCE English. After a massive effort, I did secure my GSCE English in spite of the school, not in collaboration with it.
“Although I scored very well at GCSE level (much better than anyone expected), I still felt angry that I had to fight so hard just for the opportunity to sit my GCSEs. Despite my success as a young man I was still struggling with confidence, I still felt like I was not up to scratch.”
After that achievement, Gareth’s formal schooling ended and he moved between jobs, until he landed work with Computershare in Derry. He got involved with his union AEGIS and quickly became a union rep, receiving “numerous training courses to enable me to assist colleagues in difficult times”. “Later, I was selected as a Union Learning Rep, this appealed to me on a very personal level owing to my past difficulties. I understood that many people were let down by a system which is too focused on leader boards as opposed to the best outcome for their students.”
Gareth also understood the physiological impact of “falling through the cracks of a system and not knowing where to turn”. “The frustration, anger and, regrettably, the loss of confidence and self-worth. Through workplace learning, thanks to the union, I found a route back into education, firstly in smaller courses like Sage and professional qualifications to improve employability. I have recently completed my CeMAP and equity release qualifications with formal professional designations and I am now certified to provide mortgage and insurance advice in both the UK and Ireland, in addition to my coaching badge from the FAI.”
The Union Learning Fund supports union learning projects to transform the lives of their members in developing skills, achieving qualifications and promoting lifelong learning opportunities within the workplace. The Fund currently supports 12 union learning projects in over 80 workplaces throughout Northern Ireland. It is managed and administered by ICTU, under an agreement with the Department for the Economy.
Last month, Gareth won the Northern Ireland Union Learning Rep of the year at the annual ULR conference. He is a credit to his union and a shining example of the power of a second chance.