By Jenny Jarvis, Interim CEO of the Education and Training Foundation.
Meeting the numerous adult learners at July’s Festival of Learning awards was a life-affirming experience. Many whose achievements were being recognised had demonstrated great resilience and overcome significant adversity, including mental and physical health challenges, as they pursued their goals of acquiring new skills and knowledge.
We were also fortunate to be joined, online from Kyiv, by the Ukraine Adult Education Association, which received a special recognition award. We heard about the unique challenges it faces as a result of the Russian invasion, and the very powerful commitment to lifelong learning that it nonetheless maintains. That resonated with us all.
Although educators in the UK may not be experiencing that kind of adversity, their work does require significant commitment and dedication. At the ETF we hear countless stories of exceptional colleagues, and the Festival of Learning celebrates some of the leading lights in adult education. That is why we sponsor the Tutor of the Year category award, which I was there to present.
This year’s winner, Helen Sonnenfeld, is one such leading light. Helen started working in the NHS more than two decades ago. To become a teacher in adult education, she first became an adult learner, undertaking night classes. Today, she works in a secure care setting at the Cumbria, Northumberland, Tyne and Wear NHS Foundation Trust. Her students are people with a learning disability, mental health illness or personality disorder.
The testimony of her colleagues speak volumes about Helen: her “unfaltering determination to ensure all of the people we care for are offered an education”, the fact that she “always goes the extra mile”, and her support for a small group of teachers to maintain a Centre of Excellence.
Helen has a clear commitment to self-development; she believes that teachers never stop learning and has attained Advanced Teacher Status with the Society for Education and Training, the membership body of the ETF. And that is mirrored in her approach to her learners, which focuses on inclusivity. She is driven by helping people achieve things they didn’t think possible and developing skills that can be taken forward in the wider world.
While Helen is a remarkable individual, I know that the philosophy and energy that drive her do the same for countless colleagues across our incredible sector. We succeed because of those individuals; the people whose belief in their own development and passion for supporting learners make the magic happen. I see that for myself every time I visit a college or training provider.
So, when I read our recently published Impact Report for 2020–21, I see beyond the many impressive facts and figures it highlights. It’s fantastic that 90% of Further Forces and SET for Teaching Success recruits said the programmes positively impacted on their knowledge and skills; it’s hugely encouraging that more than 1,000 individuals – nearly four times the target – engaged with our Governance programmes; and that nearly 2,500 engaged with the Centres for Excellence in SEND. The fact that 91% of experienced mentors who’d been on our mentoring training courses said they had an improved understanding of setting up and enhancing mentoring programmes is very positive indeed. It is clear through the report that the ETF is achieving its aims of growing, leading, influencing and developing the sector, even though all of this was achieved during a challenging year in which the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic were severely felt across the sector.
What really matters, though, is the difference this work is making to the people across our vibrant sector, and we have captured some of their experiences on a new impact stories page on the website. That snapshot of the contribution FE and Training’s cast of educators and leaders make tells us that the dedication, determination and professionalism exemplified by Helen exist across the sector. She isn’t alone, and with the support the ETF offers, you aren’t either.