The Importance of Lifelong Learning with Sandra Cowley

1st September, 2022 Read time: 3 min

As we're celebrating the Festival of Learning, Sandra Cowley, our resident champion of lifelong learning, as sharing her journey of learning through the ages.

In May and June this year, I was asked if I would go into some secondary schools to talk to Year 10 students about my career path. This was quite daunting as my first thought was ‘why would 15-year-olds want to hear from me and what can I do to get them to relate to my career journey?’ After the initial doubts had subsided, I started to think back to when I was their age and how I felt, as my experience of school was not the greatest and I left at 16 very disillusioned about the education system, not knowing what jobs or careers were available or what I would be good at, and really lacking in self-belief.  

The first school I went back to was the Garibaldi School, which was the one I left 42 years earlier. As I walked through the door it was hard to remember the girl I was when I left. However, as I spoke to the students about what I had learnt about myself, what learning I had done as an adult and how I have navigated my career from my first job working in a knitwear factory as a hand cutter (as that’s the only job I thought I could do) to where I am now, it became clear that the feelings of self- belief and not understanding the opportunities in the world of work still existed. It made me very proud to work for Futures, as the young people I spoke to really needed support to improve their own aspirations and self-belief and needed more people like me and you to help make the link between the school and great career opportunities available to them. I was able to show them that learning does not stop when you leave full-time education but needs to continue throughout your life. 

I can always remember being told by a previous manager: don’t ever be too busy to learn, as the person who gets the next job you wanted will have made the time.

After that, I have and continue to take up every opportunity to update my learning, be it formal or informally. Once I found a desire to keep learning, I completed my IAG Level 4 when I was 35 and my ECDL and Maths and English Level 2 when I was 37. It was at this point that I started to think maybe I was good enough to gain a degree. I decided to set myself two goals, which I never told anyone. One was to get a degree and the second was to become a Director.  

I worked hard balancing my work and my learning and, with the support of my employer and the great women I studied with, I got a first class degree when I was 45 and a post graduated Level 7 qualification at 48. Since then, I have done other courses more focussed on learning about myself and the things I can do that for years I have told myself I can’t.  

At 55, I learned to run. I know that sounds silly but I had always told myself I couldn’t run. 9 months later, I ran a 10k. It nearly killed me, but then I did it again with the support of a great running group.  

I also learned that, as I get older, health is wealth, and so at the age of 56 I walked into a gym for the first time in my life. I discovered that you’re never too old to start get fit and learn how important maintaining your strength is to the health of our body and our mind.  

Yes, my self-doubting thoughts often come into my head, but I try to rationalise these with how far I have come and the knowledge of how learning anything new helps you meet new people and form great professional and personal networks.

If there is one thing I ask, it’s to find the time to learn something new as you won’t regret it.

I have also been out and about talking with businesses about what are they doing to attract and retain their employees, and it’s great to hear so many employers know the value of embracing supporting their staff to continue their learning as well as looking after their well-being, as I do believe that the more we learn, the more we grow.  

We recently invited some employers to a networking event where they learned how they can get involved in helping young people know more about the careers available by going back into schools to help young people learn more about their business and their industry. Myself and my team have had some great conversations with employers, dispelling the myths around apprenticeships and explaining they are for any ages and are now available from Level 2 to Level 7. We have been supporting employers with recruitment and workforce development career plans as we know that people who have a plan are far more likely to achieve their career, health and life goals.  

I would love to hear from you on what you have learned as an adult, what you have learned about yourself, and what makes you excited when you wake up in a morning.

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