Joanne Maxwell - Higher Levels Skills project

Joanne Maxwell, an Environmental Health Technical Officer at Northumberland County Council embodies the need and demand for the Higher Levels Skills project in the northern region. Like many others, Joanne left school with a few O Levels and went straight into the world of work, believing she wasn't capable of taking on and passing A‐Levels. However, she progressed in her career from working in the finance sector at a high street bank, to a more challenging role working for the Council (previously Blyth Valley before becoming a unitary authority) where her learning journey began again in earnest.

"Through the Higher Levels Skills project we come across so many learners like Joanne who have previously thought they couldn't take on higher level learning, either through lack of opportunity, confidence – or both. That is why it's so important that we can offer practical help, support and encouragement and open doors for people that might have otherwise stayed firmly shut. Higher skills are beneficial to individuals, employers and the economy as a whole; fostering and developing home‐grown talent and employing it in the region." Mike Tansey and Julie Robinson, HLS Project Workers

It was at the Council that Joanne became more involved in her union (Unison) and as the demands placed upon her in this role and from her job grew she felt increasingly like she didn't have as much knowledge as she'd like to in order to do them both more effectively. So, in 2007 Joanne decided she wanted to become a Learning Champion in her workplace and within a few months she had completed several different courses (mainly non‐accredited informal adult learning) and developed a real hunger to learn more. And the prime opportunity came via Rob Wilson, lead Union Learning Rep at Blyth Valley's Learning for All Fund project and the Northern TUC's Higher Levels Skills programme which was offering the much sought after Leadership and Management Foundation Degree at City of Sunderland College at a significantly discounted rate for union members. Following the taster session Joanne immediately applied for the full two year course.

A further nine members of staff from across the council also signed up and Blyth Valley Chief Executive, Geoff Paul was so supportive of the individual learners that he committed to fund the difference in course costs for the first year. Joanne said, "My initial feeling was being nervous about undertaking such a huge challenge, then I realised that I really had nothing to lose – this wasn't something I had to do, it was something I wanted to do, and it could only be a good thing."

Two years on and Joanne couldn't have been more right. Through a great deal of commitment, effort and dedication Joanne and her eight colleagues finally celebrated the fact that they had achieved their Leadership and Management Foundation Degrees in July 2010, presented by Steve Cram!

But there was even better news ahead for Joanne a few days after receiving herresults. Only a few days later she received a letter telling her that she had been awarded the academic prize for the University's Best Performing Student 2010. Only four of the 500 students in the Business and Law faculty achieved this status. As if that wasn't enough, City of Sunderland College also chose Joanne to receive their own Achievement Award! "Achieving these awards is amazing, and along with my qualification I've achieved things I never thought I would, or could. The Higher Level Skills project has allowed me to uncover a hidden talent and proved that you're never too old to learn and has definitely made me more ambitious and look for challenges. Learning through the union route has given me so much support; personal, financial and educational."

Northumberland County Council who funded the second year of the degree have found the course so beneficial to their staff and organisation that they have committed funding for a subsequent cohort of staff who with the continued support of unionlearn, have embarked on the same learning journey this academic year. As for Joanne, her learning journey continues and she is even contemplating sharing her new‐found enthusiasm and knowledge with others by moving to the other side of the classroom as a teacher – and most definitely an inspiration.

"This programme of higher skills has proved to be very beneficial to both the outgoing Blyth Valley Council and the new Northumberland County Council employees, who are reaping the rewards of the training. With the training being around the work of the candidates and the organisation, various projects have been worked on to the benefit of the Council. We are delighted in the success of the students and the progress made in their personal development. "Northumberland County Council has committed to a new cohort as we enter into a time of uncertainty for the public sector but realise we still require leaders and managers for the future.", Training Advisor on behalf of HR Management.