Are apprenticeships as good as ‘they’ say?

That’s a good question. Are Apprenticeships as good as they say?

Who’s ‘they’ anyway?

Critics are fast to slam apprenticeships – often describing them as the modern-day Y.T.S schemes (Youth Training Schemes). Y.TS schemes offered on-the-job training for a rather reduced pay packet.

I stared my working life of a Y.T.S scheme, and while it was true about the pay and other details, it was a good thing. By working on a Y.T.S scheme I was eased into working life.

So, what of Apprenticeships? Are they as good as we like to make out?

Niamh Cain is on a level 2 Apprenticeship in business and administration and tells us:

“I was worked really hard at college to pass my GCSEs. I was also studying ‘heavy’ subjects such as politics. College was hard work, especially with a part time job.

I found that the amount of studying I was doing, along with holding down a par-time job was all becoming too much, and I was suffering with stress.

At college there isn’t enough information given regarding apprenticeships – it’s all about obtaining certain grades in order to gain a place at university. As a result of this, as well as myself, I have witnessed a lot of young people suffering with stress”.

Niamh goes on to tell us:

“I took the decision to look for an apprenticeship. I was fortunate to gain a place on the apprenticeship I am currently doing.

In the space of a year I have come a long way. I no longer suffer with depression, I have got a job I love and have also recently passed by driving test”.


Regarding barriers faced for young people accessing apprenticeship opportunities, Niamh goes on to tell us how certain processes my be putting young people off, such as interviews – more so, lace of interview preparation in college.

“I feel the interviews for the apprenticeship were more stressful than ‘normal’ interviews simply because there are more of them. For example. not only did I have to have an interview with my employer, I also had to have an interview with the college to prove I was able to complete the study required.

If I were to pass on any advice to other young people, then it would be to prep as much as possible”.

The best and worst bits:

“I’m a very hands on person, so on-the-job training is good. My manager is very supportive, and I am learning a lot of valuable work skills.

My assessor is very approachable, and I am not afraid to ask questions when I don’t understand something. Apprenticeships are a good thing if you have a learning disability – I’ve found it’s a win-win situation in the way my training is split.

Everybody says you won’t go far in life without a university degree -apprenticeships give you the same valuable qualifications without the debt racking up – you earn as you learn.

Worst bits – as I’ve already mentioned, the interview process”.

Michelle Graham


Mental health issues affect us all

My Mental Health

I’m usually fairly good at writing about this. I don’t mean to brag, it’s just that I have experienced stress and mental health problems on so many occasions.

When I was younger I didn’t know I was experiencing mental health problems either directly or indirectly. The reason I didn’t know? Well it was simply my ‘normal’, and here lies the problem we now face which begs the question ‘What is normal?’ Who decides on ‘normal?’

For me it is as though Stress and Depression are old friends. Not particularly nice friend’s mind, maybe it would be more accurate to describe as annoying relatives you bump into from time to time.

Not only have I suffered the effects of stress and depression personally, I’ve also had the horrific experience of watching somebody close suffer.

Let me share a story with you. This is about a family member.

This was 24 years ago, so back then this person had very little help. Possibly because he was male, admitting to needing help was not an option. You have to realise that 24 years ago things were different. Men didn’t admit to problems as easily as they can nowadays.

So anyway, like I said (he) didn’t get any help so ended up paying the ultimate price in taking his own life. To put it bluntly, he hung himself.

This was his second suicide attempt and my god he meant it this time. Back then despite the first attempt, no red flags were raised as they might be nowadays. Nor was counselling offered, in fact I recall no support what so ever for him or family around him. Incidents such as this were simply brushed under the carpet and we were expected to never mention them again.

Twenty four years ago the stigma attached to mental health problems was horrendous. Following the suicide I remember how people acted in my company. Nobody knew what to say to me, so often it was easier for them to ignore me.
I was working in the factory back then. This was also a time before employment rights gave us protection from bullying and harassment, and so I was in the lion’s den. This was long before I became involved with the union. I was shy and quiet and often a target. This family suicide was a gift to some. I remember enduring whispering, gossiping and finger pointing regularly. People actually thought they had the right to judge something they knew exactly zilch about.

This treatment was unbearable, so foolishly I turned to my doctor. Remember what I said about this being 24 years ago and the response from my doctor was nothing short of appalling.

I visited the doctor in good faith because I needed help dealing with my grief. It turned out that narrow- minded views were not only those of general members of public, but also those in the medical profession.

I have never forgotten my doctor’s response …. and I quote….. “You would feel the same if your boyfriend finished with you”….. This before palming me off with a large prescription for Prozac.

Consider again the reason for my visit; a close family member had been suffering with severe depression which resulted in him being found hanging at home, and here was this alleged medical professional expressing the opinion that it was similar to a relationship break-up!

This was my first exposure to the affects serious stress and depression can have on the mind. I learnt that dark thoughts to a poorly mind are completely rational. Dark thoughts to a well mind are just that – dark.

Fast forward 24 years. We have seen a significant rise in awareness for mental health and the problems it can lead to, but is it enough?

Figures suggest that 1 in four of us will suffer from mental health related problems in our lives, but how accurate are these figures?

Let’s just have another look at that; 1 in four of us will suffer – these figures will be gleaned from statistics of reported cases. But what of those who don’t seek help? These people will not form part of these statistics. People still don’t seek help for a number of reasons, including stigma and fear – the fear part almost certainly being linked to workplace stress and the perception people have of how this will cause irreparable damage to their reputation.

I would be prepared to put my neck on the line and say that accurate figures would be likely to suggest that all of us will suffer from mental health related problems in our lives. Not 1 in four – all of us. That includes you. That includes me. That includes everybody you know, love and care about.

Workplace stress is also a terrible thing to suffer. It can lead to depression which is one nasty piece of kit.

I became involved in the union at my workplace in my previous working life as a result of suffering fools. I became involved in education as a result of becoming involved in my union, and I began working to help people as a result of becoming educated. In 2009, armed with new education and new opportunities, I began on this career path.

During this time I began to build (and continue to build) a lot of sessions and awareness for mental health problems. This includes domestic violence awareness and grief support groups. I was doing a lot of case work to help support people who were having problems at work, and I had also begun teaching. In doing this work I was able to identify where potential problems were (and still are), and was able to start doing something about it.

In 2012, and for a few years after, I began working in more of an educational capacity. Very rewarding work in the amount of people I could reach.

The downside was that I learnt first-hand how debilitating work related stress can be. I learnt this as a result of being sacked every year then having to reapply for my job. Work-related stress like this clouds you and leaves you switching from crippling fear to boiling anger, and all the emotions in-between, and this was only made worse by the lack of support from TU officials in the same workplace.

Let me say, when I was a workplace rep, the day would never have dawned where I stood back and witnessed colleagues suffer unnecessarily.
Obviously I left that particular workplace. In now work (doing similar work) for an organisation that cares. I’m not ashamed to admit to suffering, nor am I willing to turn a blind eye.

I used to be told to keep quiet about my experience of stress and work related stress in case I was judged. But damn it all, I stand loud and proud and admit I’ve suffered, I also stand loud and proud shouting out that I’ll do as much as I can to help educate and inform around this serious issue.

My thoughts; in this life I believe that we are judged just as much by our non-actions as we are by our actions.

My message is this: there is help out there, but first and foremost when I comes to mental health related problems, we must be able to identify them in ourselves before we can hope to stand any chance of helping anybody else.

For information, see gmbreachout short course on Stress and Mental Health Awareness – more will be added on soon……

Michelle Graham

Educational establishments hiring unqualified teachers – who really loses?

When it comes to our kids’ education, do any of us actually sit back and wonder whether the teachers will actually be qualified to teach?

Ask the question and the answer would generally be that teachers being qualified to teach goes without saying. Should it even occur to us that future generations are being shaped by unqualified teachers when we (rightly) assume those teachers will know what they’re doing?

Does this question sound peculiar? Just the notion that schools and colleges may choose to hire unqualified teachers may seem far-fetched. However, we are beginning to see a rise in unqualified teachers taking up teaching posts.
According to the Labour Party, with data from the Department for Education School Workplace Survey, the number of unqualified teachers has risen from around 15,000 to around 25,000 in the last three years. These figures would suggest that around 615,000 children are being taught by unqualified teachers. So, the question now arises – who actually loses?
Some schools and colleges see this as nothing more than a money saving exercise. With new teachers keen to gain valuable experience, some long fought for terms and conditions are being dismissed as ‘unimportant’.
Many teachers who are still working towards completing their qualification fear that secure work will be hard to come by. When faced with the prospect of being out of work, or struggling to find long term meaningful contracts, what should the priority be?

One unqualified teacher explains what has happened to him. “I am actually hired as a Teaching Assistant and have begun working towards my teaching qualification in the last few months,” he says. “Although I am not qualified and am still hired and paid as a teaching assistant, I regularly find myself having to carry out the duties of a Teacher.”
He then goes on to explain “I am on minimum wage yet doing the same job as a qualified teacher. I am fearful of raising this with my employer for several reasons, with the main one being that I need this job.
Initially I could not see the problem, though there are some areas in which I find myself constantly challenged. Classroom control is a particular challenge. The classes I work in are generally over 20 students, more and more of whom now have identified and varied learning disabilities.
All I can say is that I do my best. I realise that my best may not be enough, and I accept that for the job. I have chosen to remain anonymous as the teachers I work alongside don’t agree with organisational decisions, but I am not prepared to jeopardise my own progression.”

This opinion is in stark contrast to those who have been in the profession longer. What of those teachers who have fought to better terms and conditions in the workplace?
One qualified teacher currently employed at Craven College in Skipton explains: “As a qualified teacher, I think it should be a minimum requirement that all teachers are either qualified or working towards a qualification.” Regarding the issues around this, she goes on to say: This is a real issue for us, not least because new people coming in who don’t hold the relevant qualifications or have experience ultimately settle for less. This undermines not only the qualifications themselves, but also puts our long fought for terms and conditions at risk.
I know of educational establishments who hire people to teach who are neither qualified (to teach) nor do they hold qualifications in the subject they are delivering. This is a real recipe for disaster. When somebody is not qualified in a subject, but then goes on to teach in that subject, the only thing they are passing on is their own perception. This is very damaging and can literally ruin career opportunities for students, not to mention cause untold damage to how society actually thinks about certain subjects.”
One curriculum leader speaks of potential damage being done: “I have witnessed many potential discriminatory opinions being passed on to students which are based purely on the mind-set of the person stood at the front of the classroom. Realistically, we need to understand that many students take the teachers word as ‘final’ – and here is the danger.”

Reports tell us there is a shortage of teachers. What with class sizes getting bigger coupled with mounting pressure to pass exams surely the ability of the teacher to deliver is the crucial element? Rocket science this is not, yet the same question continues to arise.
Not all educational establishments are keen to hire unqualified teachers. For some minimum standards are indeed in place, with requirements for qualifications at a certain level – at the very least working towards.
Mud sticks. Once a school or college has gained a ‘bad name’ it is very difficult to shake off. People are judged on their education, and often before employers have met potential employees, the listing of a certain ‘bad’ school or college can seriously prejudice against people regardless of their knowledge or ability.
A final thought – if the children are our future, how does that future look?

Michelle Graham

ACT Runcorn @ Shopping City

Runcorn Logo


Tomorrow (Friday 23rd January) GMB Reach Out Project Workers will be at Runcorn Shopping City to give people an opportunity to learn more about ACT Runcorn and the Pledge  IT Campaign.

You’ll find us opposite Poundworld between 9a.m. and 5:30p.m. and we’ve teamed up with FJ’s Restaurant to offer a discount on take out teas and coffees.

You will be able to enrol on a course, make your pledge to learn 2 new digital skills or book an appointment with a member of the team for some free information, advice and guidance about learning and training opportunities in the area.

Courses are available at our own centre or via other providers.  Some courses are available online if you’re comfortable learning under your own steam.

Funded* training is only a step away – but we can only help you take that step if we know what you’d like to learn. So come along and have a chat with us and we can help you start a new learning journey.

*Funding criteria may apply

New Year Pledge

Pledge IT

It’s a new year and we’ve all no doubt made a host of resolutions that are we’re on the point of breaking.  Well the Reach Out Team want to help you to make a pledge that you can achieve.  We’ll even help you do it!!

We’re asking people to commit to learning 2 new online skills before the end of March.  The Pledge IT campaign will be running from all of our ACT Centres.

The funding to support this campaign is on a first come, first served basis (so you’d better be quick) and is aimed at supporting people who are out of work, or on a low income learn new online skills.

Pledge IT

Our warm, friendly ACT Centres located across the region are equipped with all the kit and materials you might need and the friendly tutors are on hand to help you achieve your goals (they also make a decent brew).

So whatever your current IT skill level – why not commit to learning something new?

Call 0161 877 9439 today to speak to a member of the team and start your online learning journey.

Our ACT Centres can be found at Accrington, Preston, Manchester, Runcorn, Oldham and Liverpool.

Will you PledgeIT?

Happy Christmas

What a year it’s been.

We recruited an extra part-time Project Worker in Donaldo Wilson, Lisa Mullan took on extra responsibility in coordinating the work of ACT Accrington (see here). ACT Accrington itself celebrated it’s 5th Anniversary and the project expanded into Northern Ireland with the support of Regional Secretary, Paul McCarthy and Andy McCann who has been seconded on to the project for one day a week (see here). We also started this blog which you can see, well, here.

And that’s really just scratching the surface.  The amazing work done by the GMB ULRs in the region continues to provide learning opportunities to members, their families and colleagues. Work that ultimately has the power to change people’s lives. So thank you to all those that have helped the project to Reach Out to those that needed it. We look forward to working with you all in 2015.

The Project Workers will be working up until Friday 19th December 2014 and will be back on January 7th. Happy Christmas from Reach Out

To see the full e-card click here.

We would like to take this opportunity to wish everyone a very happy and peaceful Christmas.  We look forward to supporting new and existing learning projects across the North West & Irish Region in 2015.