On paper, it’s fair to say that I’m not a typical candidate for a graduate scheme. I’m mature (sort of!) at 33 years old, I have family and financial commitments and I’m not geographically mobile. And yet here I am! Making meaningful career progression whilst maintaining a balanced home life on the Civil Service Fast Stream.
How it all started
I graduated in 2006, aged 21, and had no idea what I wanted to do with my life. The next 11 years proved to be incredibly eventful; I got married, bought a house in the suburbs of Leeds and became mum to a spirited boy with boundless energy (which he definitely doesn’t get from me!). Life was very full, and I was very busy. But…I didn’t feel like I was using the skills I developed during my degree. What’s more, my family and financial commitments made this a far from ideal time to consider retraining or working towards a new qualification. The Fast Stream offered an alternative where I could earn a decent salary while developing a raft of new skills, but naturally I had some reservations before applying. Fortunately, the experience of being on the stream has allayed my concerns, so perhaps I can do the same for you!
Am I too old for a graduate scheme?’
No! While some graduate schemes do impose an upper age limit, the Fast Stream is open to graduates of any age, regardless of when you achieved your degree. The scheme is also open to non-graduates who work in the Civil Service, a route which attracts quite a lot of candidates who aren’t ‘fresh out of uni’.
I honestly believe that my life experience and time spent working in the private sector has equipped me to meet the challenges I’ve faced on the Fast Stream. Although I know several Fast Streamers for whom this is their first job, I don’t think I would’ve passed the assessments or been as successful in my placements if I’d have applied straight after graduating.
Do I need to move to London?
Civil servants work across the length and breadth of the UK, and there are plans in place to make the service even less London-centric over the next 10 years.
Officially, Fast Streamers are expected to be flexible and willing to relocate for work – however, individual needs are taking into account, and relocation restrictions can be granted for Fast Streamers with caring responsibilities or medical needs.
Having a child of school age means that my placements will always be within an hour of Leeds. The Department of Health and Social Care, DWP, Ministry of Justice, Cabinet Office, Home Office, DEFRA and others all operate in the area, so restricting my travel hasn’t restricted my opportunities. It’s also reassuring to know that I will be able to find permanent roles which are challenging and stimulating in Leeds after completing the Fast Stream.
Will I have to sacrifice time with my family to be successful?
The Civil Service offers its employees a level of flexibility which came as quite a shock to me after my private sector experience! Fast Streamers are contracted to a 37-hour week, but in an increasing number of roles how, where and when you work these hours is up to you.
I cannot over-emphasise the positive impact this has had on my family life. Currently, I’m working three shorter days and two slightly longer days a week so that I can do the ‘school run’ from Monday to Wednesday. I can freely take time out of my working day to attend school plays / sports days / parents evenings, and make up these hours when I’m able to.
If I’m required to visit offices outside the Leeds area, my travel costs are covered and I’m reimbursed with flexi-time for the time hours spent travelling. And if my son wakes up with an earache and a high temperature, I can simply plug in my laptop and work at home whilst he watches Disney films on the couch!
I’m currently enjoying a really satisfying balance. But I’m comforted to know that if things change and I need to spend more time at home, I could go part-time and still stay on the Fast Stream. Also, I have met a lot of managers and senior civil servants who work part-time, so I can be confident that reducing my hours would not put limits on my career in the future.
The Civil Service Fast Stream is a 3–4 year scheme for graduates of any age and existing civil servants who want accelerated progression into leadership roles. Fast Streamers move between a number of fixed-term placements, giving them the opportunity to experience a range of roles and departments and to gain a broad understanding of how the Civil Service works. The Fast Stream typically accepts applications in September – October each year. For more information about the Fast Stream, or to pre-register your interest in applying, visit the Fast Stream website.
At 47 years old who would’ve thought that I could go to live and study in another country for a year? I’m a wife, mother and a proud mature student, so my successfully having taken part in the University’s Study Abroad programme means not only that I survived a year on my own but that my family survived as well.
It started with an email which I received from the Study Abroad office in my second year. You know, the ones we all get and often ignore. This time though I told my husband about this opportunity. He actively encouraged me to apply as he knew that living abroad was something I’d always wanted to try. I set about researching and deciding where I would like to go, updating my CV, completing the application form and writing a personal statement. I chose Canada. We had spent a few days there on holiday the previous year and enjoyed it. It was far enough away from home but not that far that I couldn’t get a flight back if needed. There also wouldn’t be too much of a culture shock (or so I hoped).
In December 2016 I found out both that I had been successful in gaining a place on the Study Abroad programme and where I would be going. Thousands of students apply each year and I wasn’t hopeful, thinking my age would count against me. Imagine my joy and surprise at gaining a place at Concordia University in Montreal, my first choice!
I was delighted of course, but also saddened. This amazing opportunity meant that I would not graduate with my best friends, who had helped me through the first two years of my degree. It also meant leaving my boys behind. On one hand I felt I was being selfish, on the other I hoped that it would be a chance for us, as a family, to experience life in another country.
Before we all set off on our adventures there were many meetings to attend. I was always the old one in a sea of youth. Everyone seemed to know someone else who was going to their university or country. I just sat alone. Perhaps this was to prepare me for what was to come.
I left the UK in August 2017 for the adventure of a lifetime. My husband came out with me and my youngest son followed a week later. They were probably just making sure I didn’t bottle it! The first week was spent in a hotel sorting my Canadian life out: banking; utilities; medical insurance; university registration; furnishing my new apartment (my own little home in a lovely part of Montreal). Then the time came to say goodbye. Surely my baby still needed me even though he was 19? Shouldn’t I be the one waving him off to university? The silence in my apartment after they left was deafening.
The first week was very busy, getting to know my way around the university, meeting the academic staff and chatting to new people in class (who all wondered who this crazy British person was). My first class was on the First Peoples and as the professor began to speak I wondered what on earth I had done! It turned out he was very nice once you got to know him though. I felt much more at home in my second, adult education class, which was full of Canadian people just like me – older, with children, mortgages and all the other ‘grown-up’ life stuff. As time wore on I got used to life at Concordia and I actually loved the different teaching methods, the smaller and more frequent assignments and the classes late at night. I missed the Leeds University Library and, of course, the LLC (I had no personal tutor and there wasn’t an equivalent part of the university specifically there to support mature students).
I didn’t make friends at Concordia like my friends in Leeds either. They all had their own lives and didn’t seem to have time for me. I did, however, get in touch with a scout group through my role as a cub leader here in the UK. I couldn’t wait for Wednesday evenings. Yes, the kids were the same mischievous little monsters that I’m used to here, but it was the normal conversation that I could have with the leaders that really made it enjoyable. They’ll never know how much they did for me, helping me to survive the sense of isolation.
By November I was feeling pretty homesick. I had to book myself into a hotel just so that I could watch TV and feel close to people. I’ve now come to appreciate how people feel when they say they’re lonely, if they’ve lost a partner and have nobody to go out for a meal with. My most difficult time came when other Leeds students got together and cooked themselves a Christmas meal. They posted a picture on Instagram with a comment of “my Montreal family”. My heart sank and for the first time I realised that my support network of family and friends were 3000 miles away. The St Patrick’s Day parade was hard too – I knew the other Leeds students would be there but I ended up stood on my own in the bitter cold. I felt I might cry – I just wanted somebody to share this amazing experience with me. Yes, there’s FaceTime, Skype etc. but it’s not the same as having an actual physical presence.
How did I get through it? Throughout the year, I took every chance to travel. I studied and handed in my assignments on time. I was so much more relaxed about studying than I was in Leeds and the work seemed so much easier. I was able to take myself off to Ottawa, Quebec, Niagara (to see the falls in the snow), St. John’s, Newfoundland, Vancouver and of course Halifax (I live just outside Halifax, West Yorkshire). My family came out to see me and we visited New York, Boston, Calgary and the Rockies.
Over the course of the year I saw things I never thought I would – a cruise ship coming out of the mist over the Atlantic; a frozen Niagara Falls, the Rockies; a dinosaur skeleton by torchlight. I gained a new perspective on my studies and ideas to bring back and share. I’m approaching my final year at Leeds with a renewed vigour – in fact I feel like a fresher! I’ve grown in confidence, taken up a new role within my school and joined the hiking society (many of whom thought I was a staff member the first time I met them). I have a greater appreciation of my family and friends and of the work done by the LLC.
Would I recommend a Study Abroad year? Absolutely! It can be hard but it’s also an amazing adventure full of new opportunities. I appreciate that I’m in a fortunate position in that I could afford to do it and my children are older. That’s said, there’s nothing stopping you taking your family if you’re able – it just requires more planning and support. Mature students have the potential to change the culture of the Study Abroad programme and show the University that older learners can also have these amazing experiences.
Part of being ill in this way is the unpredictability of strength and stamina a person has. Cath’s walking and concentration were badly affected and she did not want to promise to guest at a poetry gig and then have to suddenly cancel! However, she did go to Scarborough for the launch and there is a recording of this on YouTube. She took five days to recover from this reading although she looks relatively chirpy! (Cath is on 8 minutes in after a warm-up poet, Wendy Pratt.)
More recently, Cath has been writing about the experience of having a long-term illness/disability and one of these poems was commended in the 2018 Hippocrates Awards. She was invited to the awards ceremony in Chicago in May but unsurprisingly did not attend! Cath read her commended poem in London on Thursday 5th July to the Medical Society of London with other winners. This was her first ‘long journey’ since the book launch.
Watch Cath introducing and reading the poem ‘Calculus’ below:
I joined the LLC as a Social Media Intern in June 2018. From the outset the ethos and mission of the department left a deep impression on me. My father enrolled on a degree with The Open University when I was very young and I’ve witnessed first-hand how empowering and emancipating education can be, both for an individual and their family.
Working at the LLC has only served to reinforce this view. I’ve been privileged enough to listen to inspirational talks from our wonderful Learning Champions and hear their stories of triumph over adversity. I’ve spoken to individuals who, through no fault of their own, didn’t have the opportunity to advance to higher education when they were my age, but who with the guidance of the LLC have flourished.
This year’s Adult Learner Summer School was especially inspirational to me as I was able to see how people interested in bettering themselves gained confidence over the course of the three days. I was given a taste of how LLC tutors like Kay Sidebottom and Felix Janeway tailor and fine-tune their sessions to suit and engage different kinds of people, and seeing the preconceived ideas people have of higher education dispelled by the likes of MJ Morgan and Mohammed Hussain was a real eye-opener!
From an employment point of view, I’ve been privileged to witness how friendly, hard-working and driven the staff of the LLC are behind the scenes. Whether it was Tony Ellis inviting me for an informal chat early on to get to know me, or spending lunchtimes discussing current affairs with Richard Clarkson, I can confidently say I have never felt less than unequivocally welcome. One particular highlight was discussing work over a couple of Tequila shots with Paul Devlin on a work night out! Furthermore, while taking my usual spot at a hot-desk in the office, I have seen with my own eyes how hard-working and dedicated the front-of-house team are to providing an excellent student experience.
I also felt fortunate to attend the Leeds Armed Forces Day with Barbara Kempf of the Communities and Partnerships team, and my fellow intern and current LLC student Sarah Hudson. This gave me a fascinating insight into how dedicated the C&P team are to their work, but at the same time I was shocked at how many times I heard members of the public say “University? I’m too old for that” (it’s safe to say Barbara set them right very quickly).
Finally, I’d like to thank Jenni Whitfield for the work she has done to help me feel welcome and productive at the LLC. Like many in the department, she appears to do more work than seems possible for an individual, while on top of that, she somehow finds time to help coordinate and plan our social media and digital presence. This seems like too much work for one person to do, even before you factor in showing me how to use a calendar or work the printer!
Overall, I could not recommend the Lifelong Learning Centre more highly. Their ethos and mission is consistent across the staff; from reception to senior management, and I regard it as a deep privilege to have worked for such an inspirational department.
The following is a guest post by Roland Maposa, a mature student who graduated from our BA Professional Studies programme in July 2018.
When I started here at the University of Leeds my single motivation was to get the best possible classification for my chosen degree. However, the words of my school rep at the time really drove home the importance of making the most of my student experience. His words truly resonate now, as I come to the end of my time with the LLC. While my marks have remained my priority, throughout my time here I’ve come to appreciate the value of a full student experience.
A lot of what I have done outside of my academic work has been only possible through the understanding and support of my family! Another important factor, however, has been the support of LLC Opportunities Fund. This exists to enable students to take part in extracurricular activities and personal development opportunities that inform their student experience (including their academic studies).
The fund supported me after I successfully applied to the inaugural Leeds to New York Leadership Programme here at Leeds. As a direct result of taking part in this programme I co-founded InLeeds, a student-led initiative that seeks to retain and attract talent to the Leeds City Region. I also currently serve as a student trustee for Leeds University Union.
The support I have received from the wonderful people at the LLC, and through the Opportunities Fund, is humbling. I have imparted insights gleaned from these experiences and activities to my fellow students and with the wider community in my voluntary role as a Learning Champion.
I would urge any and all students to make the most of your ‘full’ student experience through accessing opportunities that develop you – don’t underestimate what a huge difference this can make!
The following is a guest post by Marcella Manfredonia, a mature student who graduated from Leeds with a BA in Learning and Teaching in July 2018.
I feel like I ended up embarking on the BA Learning and Teaching almost by chance. I had worked for a charity for ten years but there seemed to be a dramatic switch in the direction it was heading, and it no longer felt like the place for me, so I needed to explore new avenues.
I sought advice and the best suggestion received was to volunteer in my son’s classroom as a Teaching Assistant, which I did and thoroughly enjoyed. I decided to complete a Level 2 Certificate in Supporting Teaching and Learning in Schools and one year after starting to volunteer I was offered a job at the school (which I accepted).
Towards the end of my completing the certificate Fiona Chapel visited my group at college to let us know that a degree was a potential next step. I couldn’t believe it – almost felt like I imagine it feels winning the lottery because I have always given myself a hard time for dropping out of my first degree so to be given another chance at this stage in life was just music to my ears!
So I applied, got stuck in, and have loved every minute – well, apart from deadlines! Seriously though, I think the positives completely cancel out the negatives and every semester is an achievement and takes you a step closer.
Now, five years later, I have graduated! It’s gone so quickly and I’ve learnt so much, obviously from the modules I’ve studied but also about me, my ability to persevere and the joy that a love of learning can bring. I’m not sure it has fully sunk in yet that I’m a graduate and that I made it but I do feel very happy, very proud and very excited about the future.
The following is a guest post by Joel Davison, a mature student who graduated from Leeds with a BA in Professional Studies in July 2018.
When I discovered the Lifelong Learning Centre at the University of Leeds I was over the moon to find out that I could go to university without the traditional academic qualifications. Although I had GCSEs I did not have ‘A’ Levels, but instead was accepted on the basis of my work and life experiences. It was daunting leaving an already established career to return to academic work, but with the support of the team at the LLC I was able to quickly get back into an ‘educational’ state of mind. Professional Studies is an extremely broad degree, with a focus on contemporary issues and challenges, whilst also looking at extremely relevant topics that provide an insight into today’s working world. The degree gives the option of selecting a professional pathway – this allowed me to select ‘Family and Childhood Studies’, meaning that a third of my modules were focused on this area (I initially applied to university to work towards an educational or social care role). These modules gave me the information, tools and experience that I needed to gain an insight into the areas I was interested in. During my university career, with the support and guidance of the University Careers Centre, I also volunteered at a children’s contact centre and a primary school.
Throughout my learning I faced several challenges, each of which helped build my confidence and academic abilities. The support provided by my lecturers, support staff at the LLC and my coursemates made me persevere and ultimately finish my degree. University was a stressful experience for me and there were times I doubted my abilities, but everyone was so supportive and helped me recognise my own strengths and continue to move forward.
I am so proud of myself to be graduating and looking back my time at university has flown by! I am also extremely thankful to staff at the LLC for believing in me, which helped me to believe in myself. The feeling of knowing that I’ll shortly be graduating is incredible, and when I look back to how I was as a person before university, university has made me re-imagine who I am. I am also excited to have a graduate job ready to jump straight into in July! In January I applied to the Frontline programme, an intensive social work scheme that consists of a two-year role working as a paid social worker, after which I will receive a full Masters degree. I’ll be working full-time whilst doing the academic work in my own time – it’ll be intense but I’m so lucky to have a place with what The Times newspaper has included in their list of the Top 100 Graduate Employers.
In his keynote speech at the launch of the Office for Students, Sam Gyimah reminds us that he has pledged himself to be “Not just a universities minister, but also a minister for students”. A worthy aim, but read his speech and you get a clear idea who he has in mind when he thinks of students. There are references to “anxious parents and grandparents worried about student fees”, students “investing the best years of their lives in their university experience”, HEIs “in loco parentis”, university education as “a rite of passage. Key and core to transition to adulthood”. Only the last two statements have any nod to the possibility that this might not be true for every student but, otherwise, the overwhelming message from our “minister for students” is unmistakeable: university is a finishing school for young people.
How does this square with the HESA data, which records a significant 31% of students entering higher education over the age of 25 (2016/17), or with governmental concern over the decline in part-time study, which typically has high proportions of older learners? Where is the joined-up thinking with the Industrial Strategy, Degree Apprenticeships, social mobility?
Government will be part of the problem, not the solution, if a simplistic view is taken of higher education that deters adults from recognising that they could participate and builds policy narrowly around the interests of 18 year-olds. Ministers must not be blinkered by their own “conventional” journey through higher education, or that of their advisers and speech-writers.
Sam Gyimah promises a “laser-like focus on students” with whom he wants to engage directly to “listen to their hopes and concerns”. The DfE review of post-18 funding also undertakes to take students seriously. Let us hope that they all learn, as they pick up these new responsibilities, to pay proper attention to the 31% who have already made their “transition to adulthood”!
I went back to Leeds City College to study English and Maths. I needed the qualifications to progress into nursing which was something I’d always wanted to do. I also wanted to prove that having children at a young age did not mean my life, ambitions and dreams were over.
I worked in insurance for 13 years but my heart was never in it, so I had a job change and started working as a PA for a lady who was blind and had physical disabilities. She used to live locally and then moved to Scotland. I used to commute to Scotland and stay with her and her family for 4- 5 days at a time. Whilst I worked for her I used to say how I wanted to get into nursing but didn’t have the qualifications to do this and that I was too old. She told me that the only person holding me back was myself. The funding for her care package came to an end so I bit the bullet and signed up for GCSEs in English and Maths.
My experience was a challenging one – it has been 25 years since I had been in education so I was back to basics. I also had to move to the Beeston campus in my second year when the Morley campus closed down and this meant a longer commute in rush hour traffic.
It was hard to attend classes and make sure all my homework was complete alongside working and running a home, but the end goal kept me going. The highlight for me was having supportive tutors whom I will be eternally grateful to for helping me get to this stage in my life. My Maths tutor offered additional sessions in his own time to make sure everyone succeeded. Nothing was too much trouble even when I had meltdowns and I felt that I just couldn’t grasp the dreaded algebra or know the difference between SOHCAHTOA and Pythagoras. I also met some like-minded peers who have become lifelong friends. All the hard work and determination paid off and I achieved my GCSEs.
During the run-up to my exams there was an option to attend some GCSE study sessions organised by the LLC. This was a brilliant opportunity to get up to scratch with my studies but also gave me the opportunity of looking to the future and seeing where my new qualifications might take me. I had a guidance appointment and became aware of the Preparation for Higher Education (PHE) course, which I enrolled on and subsequently completed. From there I was able to progress to the BSc Mental Health Nursing degree at Leeds.
If someone would have said to me when I signed up for English and Maths at Leeds City College that I would now be studying here I would have laughed. Regardless of your own situations do something for you and grasp any opportunity that comes your way. I’ve achieved this in four years and in the grand scheme of things that’s a drop in the ocean. I’m a normal girl from a working class background and if I can do it anyone can. I would like to again thank all my tutors that put up with me, supported me and helped me achieve the end result that I needed.
The following is a guest post by Simon West, a mature student who graduated from Leeds University Business School with a first class Honours degree in July 2017.
When I was in my last year at Allerton High School, I thought that I had it all worked out. My mocks predicted that I would receive either A*, A’s or B’s for all eight GCSEs and be able to choose whichever route I wanted. My exams were coming up when my Grandma, who I lived with, was taken ill. My Grandma died at home on the Friday night during the first week of exams and it turned the world upside down for me, my Mum and Grandad. It eventually led to the selling of the family home and me sleeping on the sofa at my Grandad’s (a one-bedroom flat) for months.
I took the remaining four exams between her death and the funeral a week later and, although I passed half my exams with the expected grades, the other half weren’t as good as I had achieved in my mocks. I had to change all the plans laid out for me and took a college course in a panic.
After six months I left college and a friend got me a job at his work for two days each week. My job was to sweep the floors of the factory and clean around the skips and then jump inside the skips to break up the window frames and glass (there wasn’t much concern with health and safety in those days!). I did this all for £10 a day, which when bus fares and lunch was taken off meant I took home £6 to my Grandad.
Five years later I was promoted to supervisor of the factory and, ten years after that, trade and production manager. After 20 years, however, the company went bust (not my fault, honest!). I was interviewed for supervisory role by two other companies in the same industry and both knocked me back for not having any management qualifications. Being stubborn, I thought “I’ll show you” and applied to Leeds to do a three-year Diploma of Higher Education (Dip HE) in Business Management with the Lifelong Learning Centre.
Staff at the LLC could not have been more accommodating and supportive in ensuring I completed the Dip HE. For example, my new job came with an extremely heavy workload and I was able to split my final year of study across a two-year period. The Dip HE allowed me to join a BSc with Leeds University Business School at Level 3, which I completed this summer with first class Honours!
The LLC and its wonderful staff have helped me in numerous ways during the six years of my studies. They provide support to everyone who studies with them whilst still advocating independent learning, so you always feel a sense of accomplishment when you complete your course.
The strange thing is, and I’ve only ever told my wife this, that when it comes to my education I think I’ve always had a little piece of me missing since my Grandma died and today I feel complete again.